Winter’s hurt on the elk? Not necessarily so much as you might think |

Winter’s hurt on the elk? Not necessarily so much as you might think

Elk and other big game animals may get caught in corridors that take them to their winter habitat that is now developed and no longer a place for food and shelter.
Rick Spitzer/Courtesy photo

After one of the most prolonged winters with extremely heavy snow — and record-breaking amounts — the Roaring Fork Valley is finally digging out. And so are the elk. 

How did the epic winter impact the herds?

It depends on who you ask. 

“It was probably worst year yet for the elk,” said Adam Kracl, resident and rancher in Spring Valley. “Sometimes, there were 100 or more a night out there in the field. My haystack is at a neighbor’s, which was snowed in, so I couldn’t access it all winter; but the elk could and ate a minimum of $2,500 worth of hay.”

Colorado Parks & Wildlife gave Kracl cracker shells and bird poppers to scare them away, but that didn’t do much for very long. 

He took more precautions.

“I had some neighbors that loaned me lights and radios on timers, but the elk just got used to them,” he said.

A bull elk surrounded by cows forage in the Roaring Fork Valley backcountry.
Will Cardamone/Courtesy photo

 If you ask CPW, it wasn’t so harsh on the elk as humans might have perceived.  

“Locally, the Snotel sites around the Roaring Fork reported ‘above average’ snow accumulations, but they weren’t as significant as many other regions of the state,” said Matt Yamashita, a CPW officer.

“Our snow totals in the Roaring Fork valley were not disruptive to our local deer and elk populations,” he said. “Further, our winter range habitats were not severely impacted by weather events this past winter, and the most significant impacts to these habitats continue to remain development and human activity on them.”

While the snow stacked up in feet, it apparently didn’t matter for the local elk herds in terms of numbers.

“There were no new or additional measures taken to assist deer and elk populations in the Roaring Fork valley,” he said. 

“Elk are an extremely resilient species when it comes to surviving Mother Nature. As a wildlife management agency, we responsibly do not intervene every time wildlife struggles. More specifically, we try to not intervene when the cause is natural. Weather patterns and natural disasters are all part of what shapes ecosystems and keeps our natural resources in balance,” he said.

The ranches and farms in the Roaring Fork see a limited amount of damage caused by deer and elk compared to other portions of the state and compared to historical numbers. 

CPW staff in the Roaring Fork did not observe a notable increase in elk conflict this past winter. 

Elk graze next to Owl Creek Road after a recent snowfall.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Furthermore, proposed hunting license quotas for game management units in the Roaring Fork and Eagle valleys are not significantly different from previous years, and local staff have not proposed decreasing licenses based on the severity of this past winter.   

However, snow does impact wildlife in extreme conditions, specifically the northwest portion of Colorado.

“We are recommending significant cuts in elk license in Bear’s Ears (E-2) and White River (E-6) Elk DAU’s as well as Deer and Pronghorn GMU’s in the northwest corner. Again, these are just recommendations. The Park and Wildlife Commission will vote on these and other license recommendations at next week’s Commission meeting,” said Rachael Gonzales, public information officer for the northwest region of CPW. 

Jared Kerst, owner of Rivendell Distribution, a sod and landscape operation a couple miles down the road from Kracl’s ranch, noted the human and animal stress.

“In Spring Valley at times, there seems to be upwards of 200 elk or so when the super herd converges,” said Kerst. “It seems like in the early 2000s, those supergroups of elk formed around December and would cycle around the area into February. Now it seems like it happens as early as August, and the rut doesn’t disperse them much.”

Elk and cattle battle for the same feed. Oftentimes, the elk with longer legs are savvier and can break through fences and human-made barriers into cattle pastures.

“The scale of the ‘problem’ has as much to do with my need for the forage to feed cattle as it does with changing elk behavior. The elk can eat over 50% of the quality forage in a given field in one or two nights,” said Kerst. “Total elk numbers in the area seemed to decrease for a few years (Some say it coincided with the highway fencing installation), but looks like the local herd is growing again,” he said. “I have struggled mightily with the elk the last couple years. This last season, the primary behavioral difference I noticed was that the superherd formed earlier and came down earlier in the year. With lead cows that have become accustomed to eating my alfalfa, the fences were no match.”

Kracl added, “Personally I think the elk want to winter down in the Roaring Fork Valley like they have forever, but it’s too crowded, so they stick up here more than before. With some more due diligence on my end to fence in the hay, they might not stick around as much, either. But they will crawl through any opening they can to get to some hay. It’s amazing, really.”

Nonetheless, as humans struggled to navigate the deep snows and prolonged colder temperatures, the Roaring Fork elk herd continued their natural path. No hunting quotas will be impacted, nor any extra precautions taken for the Roaring Fork elk to survive.