Vagneur: What is that among the elk?
Ninth of April, 2023, Sunday, in the p.m.: Neighboring ranch manager called my son-in-law, Ty Burtard, to let him know that a “water buffalo or something like that” was on their place and asked if he knew where it came from. Ty had no idea of any animals like that in Woody Creek — he called Curtis at Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) since he lives in the Woody Creek area.
Monday morning: The animal was spotted on Chaparral by a homeowner, and Ty went to check it out. It was a young yak hanging with the herd of elk. Ty roped her, and he and my daughter got her into a corral while they tried to locate the owner. In the meantime, Lauren had posted on her Facebook page about the unusual animal and questioning who the owner might be. Within an hour, she got a call from Natashia Deane, saying it belonged to her son Had, who is raising yaks on their home place.
The yak, soon to be named Liberty, had been missing since November from their Carbondale Ranch! Ty and Lauren hauled the long-haired, grunting, beautiful beast back to her home alongside the Roaring Fork, where she remains.
Almost simultaneously on the same Monday morning, an email arrived from my friend Bill Von Stocken: “Between the bus and the gondola, I sometimes hear some wild stories. For instance, this morning, I overheard a story about a domestic yak calf that escaped last fall from a ranch near Carbondale and was found this morning running with some elk. It was culled out by your daughter and put in a pen, so it can be returned. Any chance that’s true?” You think stories don’t travel fast in Aspen?
The yak, according to ScienceDirect, “sometimes called ‘the ship of cold regions,’ serves many needs related to food, fiber, and transportation of the people in the cold mountainous regions of northern China, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Nepal, and Bhutan. They originated in the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau and were first domesticated about 4,500 years ago. Yak have a unique ability to live under extreme environmental conditions and are able to survive unsheltered through the winter months, exposed to harsh snowstorms and temperatures below -40 °C at high altitudes, 3,000–5,000 m above sea level. Outside of China, the largest yak population is in Mongolia with approximately 600,000 head. Wild populations of yak are estimated to be about 150,000.” In evolutionary terms, they go back millions of years.
The yak in question, a youngster at 4 months old, had been recently weaned from her mother last fall near Cottonwood Pass and was taken to Had Deane’s place near Carbondale. Turned out with two other very young grunting oxen in a secure paddock, it was quite distressing early the next morning to learn that the newest member of the herd had escaped during the night.
The hunt was on: phone calls, ads in the paper and on bulletin boards, word of mouth, etc. – all to no avail. The images of what may have happened to the young, innocent yak troubled the family and others throughout the winter.
We can never know what communication took place in nature’s realm between the elk and the yak. Was it concern for a youngster, even though of another species, that prompted the elk to take in the bos grunnien, especially during a cold winter of deep snows? Yak are social creatures, perhaps allowing it to take up with the elk without too much self-awareness. Maybe the inexperience of the yak in the mountains gave it away and drew in the elk.
On a long trek through Bhutan, my good friend Margaret tells of sharing campsites every night with yaks pastured out on high ground around 15,000 feet, much like we pasture cattle in the high country here in the summer. Each morning as she exited her tent, there would be at least one friendly yak, regally appearing (and quietly grunting) to stand guard next to her shelter.
At the Bhutan pre-trip informational meeting, it was stressed that yak (hairy cattle) would be encountered on the trails from time-to-time, and the proper method of dealing with them is to get off the trail and out of the way, preferably on the uphill side. There’s only one winner in such an encounter.
They camped at the bases of a different peaks, Chomolhari at 24,035, the “female sacred mountain” of Bhutan being one. It’s yak country.
Over the years, we’ve roped cows, bison, and bears out in Woody Creek, but this may have been the first yak to be thusly captured, especially from the midst of an elk herd. And the clock keeps on ticking.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.