For awhile I’ve been stockpiling elk stories from different areas. I know that many TSW readers have more direct experiences with elk than I do, so I am posting this hoping that you all will share insights from your part of the country.
Here’s one from High Country News about Northeast Oregon:
Historically, the ungulates of northeastern Oregon spent May through November up in the rugged Blue Mountains, which stretch through the Umatilla National Forest in northeastern Oregon into southeastern Washington. Only during the winter months would they travel to private lands at lower elevations. But over the past 30 years, their seasonal pattern has shifted. Now, ranchers like Green are seeing elk as early as August. Some are even reproducing on private lands, raising calves to become permanent residents. Because the state governs elk populations, landowners cannot simply go out and shoot them. Instead, they must abide by hunting laws and wildlife management objectives, which consider factors such as habitat availability and the animals’ value as game.
What was interesting to me about this, is that according to the story, the current 125,000 came from an original 15 animals. At a casual glance, this does not seem to fit in with the concept that a population of at least 50 is necessary to prevent extinction, due to problems from inbreeding and genetic drift. Perhaps modelling populations quantitatively missed some goings-on in the genomes of these animals.
I also wondered why elk would want to go back to the mountains if there was plenty to eat, and otherwise favorable conditions, at lower elevations in the summer.
“Migration through our property is intense and is destroying our resources, water and improvements,” he said. “We estimate from past migration up to 1,000 elk.”
While the Game and Fish Department has no compensation program, spokeswoman Tristanna Bickford said Friday the agency tries to work with ranchers ahead of time in hopes of preventing damage by providing fencing to protect crops and hay stacks.
She also said that since 2018, the agency has increased the number of hunting permits by 67% for an area that includes a large swath of land from Taos Junction west to the Rio Chama and beyond.
The weather is believed to play a role in the movement of herds, according to department biologists. Elk tend to hang out in the high country during the summer and during the fall hunting season. If the mountains see heavy snowpack during the winter, they move into lower elevations where there is more private property.
Meanwhile in Colorado, in southern Colorado (not far from northern New Mexico), elk numbers are down, and people are studying why. Populations were reduced due to elk damage, similar to Oregon and New Mexico, but have yet to rebound. From a recent story (Jan 2020) in the Durango Herald:
The decline has been attributed to high calf mortality: About half the elk calves born in Southwest Colorado die within six months, and an additional 15% die before they reach a year old.
In the absence of one clear cause such as disease – which was ruled out – wildlife officials don’t know what’s driving the deaths.
Weinmeister said CPW is trying to determine why calves have died at high rates in study areas around Montrose and Trinidad. But research has been slow because expandable radio collars put on the calves keep falling off.
“We’re getting a little better,” he said. “But it’s not happening as fast as we want.”
In the meantime, wildlife officials are looking at other possible causes of the decline.
Recently, CPW limited tags for archery hunters. Whereas tags used to be unlimited, Weinmeister now may lower or raise the number of hunting tags based on conditions on the ground.
Weinmeister said the new process reduces the number of elk killed each year by hunters and decreases the number of hunters who disrupt breeding habits.
Each year, about 13,000 hunters trek into the San Juan Mountains to hunt the Hermosa and San Juan units, which are home to an estimated 26,000 elk.
“From the hunters I talk to, most are willing to make that sacrifice,” Weinmeister said.
CPW also is looking for ways to offset the impact of habitat loss. As Colorado’s population grows and development reaches rural areas, elk lose areas to thrive. And on top of that, recreation is encroaching into the last wild places.
What’s happening with elk populations where you live?