Disappearing elk: Study links human development to worrying declines in herd populations

A recently published study shows that human development could be causing permanent declines in elk populations in areas of Colorado, including Routt County.
John F. Russell

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A recent study suggests that human development, from the growth of cities to new hiking trails, could be the leading cause of declining elk populations in parts of Colorado, including Routt County.

That was among the main findings from a recent study, the results of which were part of a virtual presentation Wednesday organized by the Bud Werner Memorial Library and Keep Routt Wild. The research, funded by Rocky Mountain Wild and Patagonia, focused on elk herds in the Eagle and Roaring Fork valleys south of Steamboat Springs. From 1999 to 2015, populations have declined more than 50%, exacerbated by an increase in hunting from 2003 to 2004, according to other studies from Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Even more concerning to wildlife officials, the rate of reproduction among herds has decreased to such a level as to suggest the populations might not recover and could continue to drop.

Elk provide millions of dollars worth of revenue in the form of big-game licenses and income for communities that host hunters. The animals also are important for the health of ecosystems and numerous other species. 

With that in mind, Paul Millhouser, the author of this most recent study, sought to find the variables that had the greatest impact on elk populations, from human causes like hunting to natural ones like predation or harsh winters. As he explained, overhunting and natural factors do not tell the whole story. Elk populations continued to suffer even after CPW reduced the number of available hunting licenses in 2003. When evaluating losses due to predators or collisions with vehicles, Millhouser could not find any proof that such factors could account for the decades-long decline. 

Then he started to evaluate development data. As communities grow and encroach into natural land, and as trails bring more people further into elk habitat, it disrupts herds, according to Millhouser. 

He refers to these effects as habitat fragmentation and loss of landscape connectivity. These effects, Millhouser said, affect elk on a behavioral level, making them more alert and nervous, which causes them to spend less time feeding.

“It’s a real problem for them,” he said, adding that continued development growth is going to increase pressure on elk, further harming their numbers.

Source: Rocky Mountain Wild

Researchers have been doing similar studies in Routt County. In January, CPW officials netted elk outside Steamboat to put trackers on the animals to see how human recreation affects the health of elk herds. 

The issue of recreation-caused disturbance on wildlife has pitted interests of a growing outdoor industry — which generates $28 billion in consumer spending annually in Colorado alone, according to the Office of Economic Development and International Trade — against concerns over the health of habitats, which also carry economic impact. 

For example, a 2018 study from Southwick Associates, a research firm specializing in recreation markets, found that hunting and fishing generates $1.8 billion annually in Colorado, up from $845 million in 2004. 

With all of this in mind, Millhouser urges caution when it comes to further human encroachment into natural lands. He is more optimistic for the fate of elk in Routt County than in the Eagle and Roaring Fork valleys. This is because the natural habitat around Steamboat is less fragmented and the county has strict development rules in place to prevent sprawl and preserve open space. 

In his conclusion, Millhouser encouraged the public to speak up about their opinions on proposed development projects, from new housing to new trails, at the local government level.

“Mayors and county commissioners have a lot of power to make changes regarding development,” Millhouser said.

A previous version of this story misstated the date of the meeting.

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.

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