Tony Vagneur: Leaving wildlife undisturbed is key to their livelihood
She was off to my right, totally alone, sitting on her haunches in the middle of a hay field, front legs stiff and unbending, looking a bit unnerved. “I’ll check her on my way back,” was my thought, knowing I’d be going the other way in a couple of hours. Like what was I going to do, anyway, although if she had a broken leg or other serious injury, there were possible remedies in conjunction with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Upon my return, she was up on all four but standing in an uncomfortable fashion, and as she turned away, she walked stiff legged, with what appeared to be the beginnings of a birth protruding from her vagina. It might have been a prolapsed uterus, signifying the calf was probably dead, but an impending birth seemed more likely. It was clear she had been working on it for a while, and if she’d been a Hereford or Black Angus first calf heifer, I’d have taken her down to the corral and pulled the calf, giving her some immediate relief and maybe saving the newborn, or the mother’s life.
But you just don’t pull a mother elk’s calf — it doesn’t work that way. Elk are wild creatures and no matter what type of kinship we might feel with them, we are not of their world and to interfere without invitation would be a blasphemous infringement on their space. I mentioned it to my partner Margaret and that was about all that could be done.
The next afternoon, traveling the same trail as the day before, I looked for the elk but she was not to be seen in the aforementioned hay field, and my curiosity was piqued as to what may have happened to her.
Harrowing hay fields along what we’ve traditionally called Buck Hollow, I spied a cow elk lying in a clump of brush, about 100 yards away. From my viewpoint, she looked to be dead, but after watching for a few minutes, I could see her ear flick away a bothersome bug and I knew she had survived the night. It had to be the same elk as no others had been around the night before or earlier that morning.
Then, as I started on my rounds again, the cow got up and began to graze. Thankfully, she was not making her last stand, at least not then, and with some kind of joy, I noticed a newborn baby calf next to her side. All was well. Margaret came up with her most powerful telephoto lens and from our well-camouflaged spot, got a few good shots of the intriguing duo.
Soon after, the cow laid down again, appearing to be dead, as before. My only thought was that it must have been a rather traumatic birth, taking much needed energy from the cow, but the calf appeared healthy. I went home that night thinking the pair had a good shot at the future, provided domestic dogs or coyotes didn’t disturb them.
The next morning, back in the same area, there was no sign of the cow or her calf. Good, maybe they’d had a peaceful rest and moved on, joining up with the herd, maybe over in Tommy Moore’s neighborhood. My view of Buck Hollow was excellent, and there was only one place, in a thick clump of brush along the western edge, where they might be bedded down.
Just as I turned away, my peripheral vision caught a coyote jogging into the tangle, and my heart rate went up a bit. The calf could be lying there, in dire straits or dead already, and the four-footed scavenger was coming back to finish off what had previously occurred.
A chase by a domestic dog or fighting off several coyotes would likely kill the cow, given the energy-deprived situation she was in. I didn’t know it at the time, but that stealthy coyote would be the last creature I would see alive near that tangle of brush.
About four hours later, I had worked my way around to the other side of the hollow and was near the spot of brush that might be hiding the calf, or mother, or both. Full of anticipation as I hiked down the ridge above the hollow and turned into the brush, was I prepared for what may be awaiting me there?
After walking, and crawling through serviceberry, jack oak and other impediments, I surveyed the area very thoroughly. There was absolutely no sign of animals, dead or alive, other than the one coyote I flushed out of there, apparently taking a nap in the shade when I intruded upon his space.
As far as it is known, the mama elk and her baby calf are doing just fine. We don’t expect to hear from them but do anticipate that they will have a wonderful summer.
If you see what appear to be abandoned baby elk or deer, give them a wide berth and please do not touch or otherwise bother them. “If you care, leave them there.”
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.