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The Mysterious Elk

When hunting season is over and the rush for Christmas trees or winter wood dies down, the elk return.  The elk that migrate to this valley are ‘Park’ elk–elk that summer in the high Absarokas of the Lamar drainages.  1500 to 2000 elk travel here when the snows push them to seek easier feed.  It’s in their DNA to make this trek.

Personally, I look forward to them arriving.  And although they are leery of my presence, I enjoy their company.  For many winters now I arise early, before dawn, several times a week and drive the valley’s dirt road.  It’s that early morning time when you have the potential to see wildlife–wolves, coyotes, elk and moose.  The elk and deer feed usually at dawn or dusk.  The predators have learned to travel at night.  Keeps the humans away!

Sunrise at my house

Sunrise at my house

And although these elk have been thoroughly studied, they still contain many mysteries.  For instance, for the past seven years that I’ve lived here, the elk have a ‘usual’ pattern of movement.  In January/February, they spend time in larger herds of up to 700.  They feed dawn and dusk on the flats behind my house and another large herd feeds across the river in various areas.  During the day they retreat to the cover of the trees to digest and rest. They move, but their movements are fairly predictable.  As the weather warms, they break up into smaller herds (are these ‘family’ groups?), feeding in areas that have been opened up from the snows. Usually by late April, they’ve gone to the high country to calve; if the snows linger then I’ve see them calve in the valley.

Coveted elk habitat on property that could be a subdivision

Coveted elk habitat on private property that could be a sold into a subdivision

Last winter the snows were constant and really deep, starting early February.  A large herd of elk stayed by my front yard, feeding in the willows and resting under cover at night.  Although over 70% of an elk’s diet is grasses, when snows are deep, elk will eat shrubbery such as aspens, willows, and even conifer bark.  Last winter was also constantly windy. I noticed the elk preferred a place in the meadows where the topography dipped slightly–a wind buffer.  So intelligent they are!

So far this year is a totally different, and mysterious, story.  Several years ago the large ranch in the valley replaced their 12′ high barrier fence with a low attractive wooden fence.

Elk stuck inside fence and can't get to safety

Elk stuck inside fence and can’t get to safety

The elk used to get trapped inside with only two gates open, ‘sitting ducks’ for wolves.  The ranch irrigated their fields and trucked their cattle in from May through October. Their fields were seriously overgrazed. When the high fences came down, elk moved through but not as much as I thought they would.  I supposed there was little feed left after the cows departed.   This year the ranch hands convinced the owner that the fields needed to rest, maybe as much as five years.  So they stopped irrigating, reduced the cattle to just a few head, and began the resting process.  And guess what?  The elk are herded up there, about 200 every day.

The new fence with lots of elk there this year.  They are resting these grasses so have reduced cattle grazing

The new fence with lots of elk there this year. They are resting these grasses so have reduced cattle grazing and stopped irrigating

Yet this is not what surprises me about this year’s elk movements.  For the first time ever, I’ve watched them graze heavily in an area of high sagebrush cover.  Also their groups are already smaller (not the usual large January herds)–between twenty to two hundred–and they are in all sorts of habitat. Plus the elk appear much more relaxed.   They are feeding beyond dusk or dawn–in fact, at all hours of the day.  The only thing I can figure is that we had such a great winter that the grass is nutritious and rich everywhere.  I just wish I understood what drives them to feed in these sagebrush areas as well–what kind of native grasses are there that they are enjoying compared to the stock grasses they also like on the cattle pastures.

G&F habitat that usually is never grazed by the elk.  This year they are loving it!

G&F habitat that usually is never grazed by the elk. This year they are loving it!

When I told one person about how relaxed the elk appeared, he replied that maybe the wolves are gone.  Not so.  I saw two wolves the other morning.  And these elk are adapted to our wolves who follow them.  Middleton’s own study on these elk showed that only when wolves are around 1 kilometer (1/2 mile) away do elk begin to react.

On the other hand, although I did see 2 wolves, I have seen very few wolf tracks.  If all the elk are here, where are the wolves?

Coyote travels one way while a wolf travels in the opposite direction

Coyote travels one way while a wolf travels in the opposite direction. Taken two days ago

Another mystery:  There is an elk carcass along the road–a young elk maybe 3 years old.  Although the elk was completely eviscerated, she has a lot of meat on her and is still completely intact as far as her skeleton and hide.  I’ve been watching it for five days, and haven’t seen any birds on it, nor any other predators.  A few coyote tracks, a few wolf tracks, and a lot of Koda, my dog, tracks!  Although there is no wolf hunt this year, the wolves never linger to be watched like they used to.  They have quickly learned that humans are their mortal enemies.  It just might be this carcass is too close to the dirt road for their comfort, even at night!

Koda, Koda’s ball, and wolf tracks

 

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One Response

  1. Great observations Leslie! You ask good questions. John M.

    Like

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