Elk who were part of a herd, keep an eye out for any threats while grazing earlier this week just north of Steamboat Springs.

Photo by John F. Russell

Elk who were part of a herd, keep an eye out for any threats while grazing earlier this week just north of Steamboat Springs.

More than 16,000 elk wintering north of U.S. Highway 40 between Steamboat and Craig

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— Thanks in part to the recent warm spell that has melted snow off some south facing slopes, most of the 16,000 to 17,000 elk wintering north of U.S. Highway 40 between Steamboat Springs and Craig are in good condition and should come through the winter well, including last year’s calves.

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A herd of elk moves along a pasture north of Steamboat Springs.

“Conditions are good for the elk despite the amount of snow in Steamboat and up in the mountains,” Colorado Parks and Wildlife Area Wildlife Manager Jim Haskins said Thursday. "When you get to this part of the winter and have had some decent conditions like we’ve had, we feel the elk will get through the winter in good shape, and that’s what we’re finding.”

Parks and Wildlife terrestrial biologist Jeff Yost said the number of elk north of U.S. 40 here is down to about half of what it was seven or eight years ago. But that is by design, and the current numbers in the area between Steamboat and Craig are right on Parks and Wildlife’s population target. Through managing the issuance of hunting licenses in prior years, CPW cut the herd back to reduce crowding on key habitat areas and reduce issues with humans.

Yost, based in Steamboat, boarded a helicopter just after the first of the year to take an informal census of the elk population, using a tape recorder to tally the numbers of cow, calf and bull elk making up the herd.

“I classified 800 to 900 elk, and I know there are about 1,000 elk that winter up Elk River and around Steamboat,” Yost said.

He even observed several hundred of the hardy animals on the Sleeping Giant west of Steamboat.

“Most of those elk were down along the edge of the oak brush, but some were on the steep faces,” Yost said. “I’m amazed at how many I saw running or standing on the steep south side” of the Giant.

Yost said that some winters his office receives a number of calls reporting elk calves that are struggling in late winter, but those have been rare this season.

Some people like to say that the only things that kill elk are “bullets and bumpers,” Yost said. He came across a road kill elk calf recently and took the opportunity to inspect the carcass and found it to be in very good condition. He has learned to spot an elk that is in trouble in mid-winter by looking at its rump. If it has a flat spot on top of its hind quarters, it’s a sign that its muscle mass has been significantly reduced and the animal may not be able to recover.

Winter set in for good in Steamboat on Oct. 1 this year and not all elk make it through the cold months. That was the case with a large bull elk that the Murphy family came to call “Lawrence Elk,” because he became so familiar to them.

The elk appeared between their vehicles and a shed one day in mid-January and then spent a period of days on their patio.

Murphy lives off Routt County Road 44 on Deerfoot Lane with her son and daughter-in-law Michael and Leslie Murphy and their daughters Hannah and Maille.

“It really struck us in the heart,” Suzanne Murphy said Thursday. “He slept under my kitchen window the first week. I would go out on the patio and speak to the elk and he would just look at me. He was comfortable there, and he was just fine.”

But the bull elk was not really fine.

The Murphy family noticed that Lawrence Elk had rope wrapped around his large rack of antlers and his head. Yost, who is familiar with the plight of the animal, said deer and pronghorns as well as elk have been known to get tangled in baling twine encountered in hay fields — they seem to amuse themselves by tossing it with their antlers. In the case of the bull hanging around the Murphy home, the twine interfered with its jaw and its ability to eat.

“The rope was around the bottom of its jaw. We thought, 'Let’s give the thing a chance,'” Yost said. “We had a heck of a time getting it loose.”

“The elk got up and seemed OK initially, but it was already in pretty poor body condition — it was too far gone,” Yost said.

On Jan. 28, Murphy said, the animal wasn’t moving around any longer and Parks and Wildlife officers ended the elk’s suffering.

For the large majority of the elk in Northwest Colorado, the worst of winter seems to be behind them, and barring a return of frigid weather that might cause a crust to form over the meadows, Haskins said, they should pull through.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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