When Elk Stand Still

A herd of Colorado elk refuses to migrate, leading to exponential population growth and overgrazing.

A herd of elk has found an area of Colorado they like. Now they refuse to migrate each year.(Photo: iStock)

 

Colorado’s Rabbit Mountain is elk heaven. Located in Boulder County near Lyons, the area is an ecotone—mountains adjacent to plains, perfect for the species. The animals have the best of both worlds in a comparatively small area; why would they ever want to leave?

The problem: Rabbit Mountain sits on public land, and Colorado doesn’t allow hunting there. Hunters can take elk on neighboring private land, but the elk have learned to avoid their pursuers by never leaving the 500-acre preserve. The herd no longer migrates each year, resulting in a population explosion and severe habitat degradation.

In 2007 the herd was estimated to hold 50 elk. Ten years later that number has jumped to roughly 400. The animals are eating themselves, and other species, out of house and home, with whatever vegetation left uneaten being trampled under their hooves. In addition, taxpayers are having to foot the bill for damage done to private property on the fringes of the preserve.

The state seems to have finally realized the benefits hunting can have on this situation. Lawmakers are considering opening the mountain to a handful of hunters, each limited to one tag apiece. The goal is to lower the population to 30-70 elk (30 if the herd remains non-migratory, 70 if they’re moving).

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is hosting an open forum April 6 to discuss the measure, followed by public-comment periods over the next few months. If approved, hunting would be combined with other initiatives—limited fencing, hazing, alternative crops, etc.—to address the situation.

To view a draft of the management plan, click here.