By Dexter Gill
My friend has wanted to bag an elk. It doesn’t have to be a monster, just a nice one that will put some meat in the freezer. He calls on the phone and says, “Hey, I hear Colorado is the place to get an elk. I hear they have gobs of them in the mountains there, so how about helping me bag one?” Wanting to help a friend, I say sure, I see them frequently while driving around so it should be an easy pick with thousands of acres of National Forest in our area.
That was five years ago and we have yet to even see one in the public forest, much less fill his tag and freezer. I began wondering how it is that my neighbors have problems with large herds getting into their hay stacks in the winter, and one friend had them eating hay out of the back of his pickup in the carport at night. A big cow elk wanted me to yield the county road to her just the other day. Why are they such a costly nuisance to the farmers and ranchers on the private lands, but are so difficult to find on the public National Forest?
By the way, did you know they love the commercial sunflowers, and winter wheat fields? I found that deer hang around my house and hay field year round, fawning behind my shop, but finding one on the public lands is really difficult. P.S. they really like rose buds by the house.
I started to do a little researching and found that statewide there are about 280,000 elk and 425,000 deer, pretty impressive, right? Well, looking at the past 10 years, the elk statewide has actually increased about 10 percent and the deer declined about 30 percent. All these numbers are rounded off and the latest numbers are not yet available, but I’ve been told there does not appear to be much change. Looking closer to home, the four hunt units of 70, 71, 711, 72, 73, which cover three counties, actually are supposed to have over 19,000 elk, a 24 percent increase over the past 10 years.
However, the seven hunt units in La Plata and Archuleta counties, incorporating most of two large wildernesses, are supposed to have only about 22,000 elk and the two units west of Durango 74 & 741 with 4,500 elk count, have declined by 9 percent and 24 percent respectively in elk population estimates. The deer have been declining by 55 percent in the 70, 71 and 711 units about 22 percent in the units in La Plata County.
So how come you have to dodge deer wandering the streets of Durango and eating my wife’s roses and getting into mating actions right in my yard, oh my! Just this week I had to stop traffic on North Broadway in Cortez by Choice Lumber to keep from hitting two deer headed for One Stop Music store. The elk are eating the commercial sunflower fields and “plowing up” the winter wheat fields and destroying hay stacks. Something about this picture doesn’t seem right.
Here is a question. What is the preferred habitat for elk or deer? Answer: where there is the most accessible and available food. Food is followed by water and some occasional cover, although they are found bedding down in my totally open grass hay field and the county road. Food, they want food! An elk eats around 15 pounds of grass and forbs a day, the deer browse on shrubs, forbs and a little grass. They really like the dandelions and bindweed in my yard, but prefer the roses. In the winter they eat whatever they can get.
So why does there seem to be more deer and elk on private lands than up in the forest? Food! Elk and deer forage is declining in the forest. This is likely behind some of the marked decrease of elk in the wilderness units. Left to nature, the forest grows denser with larger trees and older large brush which shades out the grasses, forbs and lower succulent shrubs, resulting in little to no forage. Ten elk will clean up 150 pounds of forage every day, where are they going to get it?
Some people think the elk and deer prefer and need the so-called wilderness areas. If that were true, how come the populations are declining in the wilderness areas, but increasing near the farming and ranching areas? Food, wonderful food! Contrary to what some say, the animals prefer any place there is food, such as roadsides, agriculture fields, lawns, recent logging areas, range improvement projects, even city parks. The easier to get, they better they like it. Private land management has created a more consistent, better diversified and apparently preferred habitat for many elk and deer, as well as other wildlife.
We are now seeing the results of no longer managing, using and improving the forests and range conditions on public lands. The best food conditions for elk and deer are the same as those for cattle and sheep — when the trees and shrubs are not too thick, which allows for a good balance of sunlight and water to maintain a good tree, grass and forb cover for the soil. Public lands are simply not providing the food necessary to sustain the higher populations of wildlife that many want to be there. We have provided that in the past and it can be started and accomplished again with good active management.
Dexter Gill is a retired forest manager who worked for private industry, three Western state forestry agencies, and the Navajo Nation forestry department. He writes from Lewis, Colo.