As winter winds down, Routt County wildlife are still scrounging to survive |

As winter winds down, Routt County wildlife are still scrounging to survive

Many elk migrate to lower-elevation areas to avoid harsher winter conditions. (File photo)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As the snow line starts to creep back up the mountainside, elk and moose will follow, and Routt County residents should be aware that many of their backyards are in wildlife habitat.

In November and December, they head to lower elevations where they’re better able to move through shallow snow and to have a better chance of finding plants to forage on. As the snow continues to melt, the animals migrate back uphill.

In the springtime, elk rely on south-facing slopes where they can move through more shallow snow and browse on whatever available shrubs are poking out of the snow.

Elk in the Bears Ears herd, which lives in an area spanning from the Continental Divide west to central Moffat County and from the Wyoming border south to about U.S. Highway 40, migrate between Moffat and Routt counties. In central Routt County, a sub-herd of these elk sticks around all winter, traveling the much shorter distance between Catamount Reservoir and along the Elk River, about halfway to Clark, said Kris Middledorf, area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Near Steamboat Springs, though, these areas are also prime hillside real estate. In areas such as Steamboat’s Sanctuary neighborhood and the hillside condos that abut forested mountainsides, elk are more likely to run into humans and their pets. As snow pushes these elk into the valley, they see a narrow band of habitat between snow that’s too deep for them to walk through and people’s homes.

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An elk feeds Monday afternoon above a home in Steamboat Springs’ Sanctuary neighborhood. (Photo by Eleanor C. Hasenbeck)

“Elk really need to have places that they can rest and forage and winter range that is undisturbed,” Middledorf said. “These animals are trying to conserve every calorie they have for the wintertime.”

Elk largely rely on the fat stores they’ve built up in the warm months to get them through the winter when nutrients are hard to come by. They avoid deep snow because wading through consumes more energy.

“These animals are still trying to survive through the winter,” Middledorf said. “Even though spring is right around the corner, they’ve got a lot more to go through, and every calorie is important. Anytime an elk or a moose or an animal has to run away from a human being to get distance, it’s expending calories and energy that it would need to sustain itself through the winter.”

Moose are also on the move. Middledorf said snow depths in the woods often push moose into lower lying or easier-to-walk-on areas, such as a packed-down ski run.

“That’s why we see an uptick in the number of conflicts or human-moose conflicts in the ski area in January, February and March, because those animals are really restricted to the limits of their range and having a packed ski trail is really easy for their mobility,” he said.

Middledorf said CPW and Steamboat Resort work closely to address wildlife issues at the ski area. The past two weeks have seen high levels of moose activity, he said. A moose ran through the base area last week, he said, and in another incident, skiers and riders chased moose down the B.C. Ski Way, a cat track on the west side of the resort.

“Keeping distance is important primarily for the health and safety of our public. Cow moose, a calf moose, a bull moose, any of these can be very dangerous,” Middledorf said. “They’ll likely try to run away from somebody, but if their fastest or easiest avenue to get away from something is through it, they will do it.”

Any animal that attacks a human is euthanized, Middledorf said.

Those venturing out on trails should also respect seasonal closures in the area. Right now, winter habitat closures are in place in several areas of Routt National Forest. Once calving season begins, areas will shift from winter closures to closures to protect pregnant elk cows and calf elk.

To find out what’s currently closed, contact the U.S. Forest Service office in Steamboat at 970-870-2299.

Residents should also avoid feeding animals, which can make elk and other wildlife grow habituated to humans. It can also concentrate animals in one area, which makes it easier for disease organisms to spread through a herd.

“These animals are adapted to these winters,” Middledorf said. “They can survive on their own. They don’t need supplemental feeding.”

This also applies to bears.

Area black bears typically emerge from hibernation in late April, Middledorf said, but the bears who didn’t pack on enough pounds in the summer and fall will get hungry and wake up as temperatures rise.

“It’s a good time to be aware that we need to have our trash secured in bear-resistant trash containers or stored in garages and in buildings,” Middledorf said.

Bird feeders and greasy barbecue grills can also attract bears.

To reach Eleanor Hasenbeck, call 970-871-4210, email or follow her on Twitter @elHasenbeck.

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