Today’s Tip: Elk Behavior in Winter
While I like to pursue a lot of different animals, birds, and fish, elk are my true passion. They are beautiful, amazing animals for which I have a great deal of respect, and if you are hunting elk, you are probably in some very gorgeous country. For me, hunting elk in Colorado during the primitive weapons season, I am in complete wildnerness, far from any roads or civilization, and that is part of the allure of the experience. Even now in January I am beginning to think about the hunting season in nine months, and it fuels my passion for knowledge of these majestic animals. So tonight I was sitting here thinking “I wonder what the elk are doing now?”
With the rut behind them back in September, and now that the hunting seasons are over, elk tend to get back to their natural behavior without the pressures of mating or being hunted. In most areas, elk country is a vast expanse of land, from high mountains, to low valleys. Of course there are exceptions to this where elk have been successfully re-introduced in areas where large areas of wildnerness are not always available.
In either case, elk will migrate to an area each year to spend their winter there, typically following the same migration routes year after year. Elk are very social animals, and except for the rut and shortly after, they tend to hang out together. This time of year elk will gather in large herds; bulls, cows, and calves all together, and will remain in these herds throughout the winter. In some areas, elk may remain on higher ridges where the wind constantly blows the snow away, leaving vegetation exposed. Elk will also eat tree bark, especially aspens as I am sure you have seen if you’ve ever been in the mountains where elk live, their teeth marks will last for years on an aspen tree.
Elk are surprisingly tough animals, and they are not affected much by cold temperatures and heavy snow. In deep snow they use their sharp hooves to dig away snow to get at vegetation, which burns needed calories at the same time. Elk are very resourceful though, and they can eat a variety of vegetation, including farm crops, shrubs, and even decorative lawn plants in areas where civilization runs into their winter habitat.
Hardy as they are, elk can still succomb to extreme winter conditions if they are prolonged. A few years ago during a particularly bad winter, elk in some mountainous states were drawn to train tracks since they were cleared of snow and had some vegetation exposed. Unfortunately many elk were killed by trains that winter. That year, division of wildlife organizations initiated feeding programs where they hauled in hay by truck or snow machines to feed the elk.
In some places there are specific areas preserved for winter elk habitat, such as the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, WY. This was established in 1912 to provide winter range for elk, and was one of the earliest attempts at preserving elk, which were severely over-hunted in the 1800’s.
I am very impressed with what our wildlife biologists and wildlife organizations, such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, have done to bring elk numbers back to far above what they were over a hundred years ago, while our human population has exploded and taken away their habitat. I am lucky enough to be able to hunt where the largest herd of elk resides in North America, and the Colorado Parks and Wildlife organization does a great job to maintain the elk population.
The fact that those who love to hunt elk are the very ones who sustain them is an incredible concept, and one that non-hunters don’t really understand. But it’s working very well right now, and there are elk in more places across the country now than there were a hundred years ago, which is pretty amazing.