Elk Set up Permanent Residence in Loveland

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Seeing elk in places such as Estes Park, Evergreen or the rugged mountains of Colorado’s western slope is fairly common, but elk are appearing more often in some places – specifically in Loveland this year – where they used to be rare.

“About a year ago, elk began to arrive in Loveland,” said District Wildlife Manager Aimee Ryel. “At first, people were surprised to find them in their orchards, eating their flowers, rubbing against their trees.”

Elk were seen occasionally in the Loveland area for the past ten years, but seemingly overnight the population increased by several hundred head. Ryel and other wildlife biologists believe the elk migrated from the Estes Valley/Big Thompson area, where pressures from drought and overpopulation in the area pushed them to move out in search for food. “But now they are happy campers, they’ve found refuge on golf courses and lawns, and many have settled into the community,” Ryel said.

At the peak, during winter and early spring this year, wildlife biologists counted nearly 370 elk west of the Loveland community and in the Town of Loveland. By early summer, many of these elk moved westward again to have their young on historical elk calving grounds in the Estes Valley, but Ryel estimated nearly 130 elk have not migrated and have established the Loveland Area as their permanent home.

“We still have bulls, cows and new calves born this year,” Ryel said. “Now that the elk have established calving grounds here, we can expect more calves to be born in the area next year.”

Originally, three of the “new” elk that moved into the Loveland area were wearing radio collars that identified them as part of a research study associated with Rocky Mountain National Park. Two of the radio-collared elk left the area (presumably to return to the Big Thompson or Rocky Mountain National Park area), but one of the collared elk has stayed in Loveland over the summer.

While some residents are thrilled to glimpse the huge mammals -- measuring 8 feet long from nose to tail and weighing up to 1,000 lbs. -- passing through their neighborhoods, other folks are dealing with trampled gardens, damaged trees from elk eating bark and rubbing against limbs, and overgrazed lawns and landscaping. This scenario has become common throughout the country and communities solve these over-abundant wildlife problems in different ways. This has led to property damage, elk/car accidents and complaints from citizens.

“I’ve had more than 300 complaints about elk this year,” Ryel said. “But the best advice I can give is that people are going to need to evaluate their property and add barrier fencing and landscape changes to keep the elk away.”

Detailed literature is available to advise people who wish to deter deer and elk on their property, but as the University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension Division notes, “It is difficult to move deer out of areas where they are not wanted. A hungry deer will find almost any plant palatable, so no plant is "deer proof."” Netting and wire cages can reduce deer damage to small trees. Adequate barrier fencing to exclude deer is the most recommended way to control deer and elk damage. Damage prevention and control methods include woven-wire fencing, electric fencing, plastic cylinders to wrap tree trunks, frightening (hazing) deer and elk with noises, such as explosive caps.

In some communities (where there are no firearm closures), increasing hunting pressure will prompt remaining elk to move to other areas. “If a herd watches an individual member harvested, they are likely to move away from the area,” Ryel said. “Outside of city limits, some people are able to hunt on their own property.” Landowners who are interested in herd reduction can apply for private land only licenses in next year’s hunting license drawing. Applications for drawing licenses are due the first Tuesday in April.

Many elk herds have historical winter and summer ranges and typically will leave an area as the seasons change. In winter, elk may visit residential areas with grassy lawns to graze bird feeders for seed and browse shrubbery, as well as eating the twigs, bark, and needles of trees and shrubs. In spring and summer, they graze on grasses, but will also browse on broad-leaved plants, tree leaves and twigs, and shrubs. “These elk look quite comfortable here,” Ryel said, “so we don’t expect them to move out on their own.”

Before the arrival of European settlers, wapiti ranged throughout the area that is now Colorado, including the eastern plains. Market hunting nearly drove Colorado elk to extinction. By 1910 only a few hundred elk remained, and restoration of the herds was helped by transplants from Yellowstone National Park. Now elk range throughout mountainous parts of the state, foraging in meadows and alpine tundra. Today, Colorado has more than 300,000 elk, the most of any state or Canadian province. While hunters harvested more than 61,000 wapiti in Colorado last year, the population continues to grow slowly, but steadily, statewide.