Moffat County resident Darryl Steele said he woke up Monday morning to quite a sight in his pasture three miles east of Maybell.
About 40 elk had moved onto Steele’s land and were looking for a rare meal in the harsh winter conditions, he said.
The elk were contained in an area about 100 yards from Steele’s home and closely shared the area with his cattle and horses — something concerning to the rancher and former Moffat County Commissioner.
“They had the horses pushed back off of the bales of hay,” Steele said of the elk. “There was about 15 of them eating in there and I’m not as worried about what they’re eating as I am about those bulls putting a horn in one of those horses.”
The scene Monday morning on Steele’s property is one familiar to ranchers in the Maybell and Sunbeam area in the winter months, he said.
Prompted by concerns of ranchers like Steele, Colorado Division of Wildlife officials have developed a plan they hope can mitigate the situation and prevent damage and other losses caused by the elk.
According to a news release, in the next several days the DOW plans to place hay in two areas several miles north of the Yampa River near Maybell in hopes of luring elk away from feeding lines laid out by ranchers for cattle and sheep.
DOW officials understand the effort will not completely eliminate agricultural damage from elk, but the plan is designed to curb the damage done to livestock operations on pastures, according to the release.
DOW officials also hope to prevent elk from injuring livestock and possibly trampling calves born in late February and early March as a result of winter conditions.
“We’re concerned about the situation in the Maybell area,” DOW area wildlife manager Bill de Vergie said in the release. “With more snow and more winter on the way, we're working hard to minimize losses to the ranching community.”
DOW officials cited heavier-than-usual snowfall in the Maybell area as cause for elk migrating in search of accessible food.
According to the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, more than 30 inches of snow fell in the Maybell area during December, which is about two-and-a-half times the monthly average, the DOW reported.
Steele said this isn’t the first time, however, winter conditions have caused elk to encroach on the area. Three years ago, he said “the elk were in on us bad,” and this year, ranchers hope to avoid similar circumstances.
“We didn’t get the cooperation out of the (DOW) as good then and by the time they finally got around to it, the weather broke and the elk went back, but that was later in February,” he said. “So, we are trying to be more proactive on this thing this time and take care of the problem while it is still a problem and not after the fact.”
DOW Director Tom Remington said in the release that those conditions experienced in the winter of 2007 and 2008 resulted in more than $125,000 in game damage claims for lost hay.
“That’s unacceptable to them and us and we are going to do our best to keep the level of damage as low as possible,” he said.
DOW spokesman Randy Hampton said the DOW hopes to be more effective this winter than three years ago.
“We think we have got some better locations charted out to conduct the operation, so I think we have learned from (2007 and 2008) and we can actually probably do better this time, we hope,” he said.
Steele said he was pleased with the DOW’s response to local ranchers’ concerns.
“They appear to be willing to work with us and see if we can get rid of the problem without too much of a confrontation,” he said.
The DOW reported that the operation is not a feeding operation designed to prevent the starvation of wildlife in harsh winter, which is prohibited except in certain circumstances.
“This is not a feeding operation,” DOW northwest regional manager Ron Velarde said in the release. “That's a last resort when large-scale starvation is likely and we don’t anticipate that. What we’re trying to do is bait elk away from ranches.”
In addition to the baiting operation, the DOW is giving ranchers game damage panels to fence elk away from their hay stacks and pyrotechnic shotgun rounds to “haze them off,” according to the release.
For damage prevention materials, call a local DOW office. A list of those offices can be found at http://wildlife.state.co.us/About/OfficesAndPhone/.
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