Elk cause winter spike in Highway 40 crashes between Craig, Hayden
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Elk that have descended to lower elevations during the winter months have caused multiple motor vehicle crashes in Routt County in recent weeks.
A portion of U.S. Highway 40 between Craig and Hayden has seen the most wildlife collisions, including one vehicle that caught fire last week after hitting an elk.
Sergeant Scott Elliott with Colorado State Patrol has seen a spike in such collisions over the last month. He receives at least one call a day about someone hitting an elk.
In addition to the stretch of U.S. 40, other roads with frequent elk sightings include Routt County Road 129 north of Steamboat, Routt County Road 14 south of town, as well as along Colorado Highway 131.
Darby Finley, a biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, manages the Bears Ears elk herd that migrates through these areas in January after heavy snows cover their food sources in the mountains. He said the herd comprises about 20,000 elk spread across Moffat and Routt counties.
This winter, which has been snowier and colder than last, has brought more elk to trafficked areas.
“When we get tougher winter conditions — crusted snow and colder temperatures — a lot of elk push down toward the Yampa River,” Finley said.
A few hundred of those regularly stay near the roadside until they migrate back to higher elevations around March.
Finley added that an unusually dry summer in 2018 eliminated much of the grasses that elk typically rely on throughout the winter months. That has likely increased the number of elk near roads.
At night, they cross the highway to eat leftover hay from farmers’ feed lines or to scrounge dried grasses uncovered near the roadside.
“That’s why you get that distribution along the highway,” Finley said.
The fields around U.S. 40 also face southward and receive a lot of sunshine. They tend to have shallower snow accumulation, which makes it easier for elk to paw their way to food sources.
Dal Leck, fire chief for the West Routt Fire Protection District, has responded to six crashes in that area since the start of the year. In most cases, drivers are uninjured.
But crashing into an animal that can weigh upwards of 700 pounds usually causes extensive vehicle damage, Leck added.
Last week, West Routt firefighters doused flames from a car that caught fire after hitting an elk. A woman was driving near a rest area between Hayden and Craig when she crashed into the animal and the airbags in her vehicle deployed.
“She got out of the car and then the car ignited,” Leck said.
The woman suffered no injuries. Her car, as well as the cars of many who crash into elk, was totaled.
To avoid such collisions, all three men emphasized that drivers need to slow down in elk areas. The animals are especially active at night.
Finley added that it is also not uncommon for elk to lie on the pavement in the middle of roads to keep warm during a snow storm. That can make it even more difficult to spot them, which points to the need for extra caution.