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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Elk on the move

K and I encountered our favorite runner and dog (R) as we mountain biked out on the trail. R runs every day and his elbow continues to amaze us. Just the other day, his intensity almost hurt him. He saw a squirrel on the driveway and zoomed in pursuit. The smart squirrel went under our parked car, and R failed to notice the hunk of metal in his path until it was too late. He smashed into the bumper and limped away holding his surgically repaired forelimb limply in the air. Our hearts fell. But, his gimpiness didn't last long. He rapidly recovered and is again running without a hitch in his gait. His collision with the parked car reminded us of Murray the dog in 'Mad about you' running into the walls.

When I headed out on my own, I pedaled up high on a ridge. I found mostly dry trails, gorgeous skies, elk hoof prints, and elk scat. As I climbed up a steep hill with skeletons of burned trees and aspen saplings, some movement on the hillside caught my eye. Through the charred tree skeletons, I saw innumerable elk walking up the hill ahead of me. Once they spotted me, they dropped over the crest that's just behind the tree skeletons and were out of sight.

After I hauled myself to the top of the steep slope, I saw that the elk were moving nonchalantly parallel to my trail. They began to cross the trail ahead of me in single file. I raptly took photos the whole time - and the photo times tell me that it took 4 minutes for the whole herd to cross. The elk look strong and healthy. The calves, now probably about 8 months old, are approaching the size of the cows. Each calf still appears strongly attached to its mother and acts as if an invisible leash joins them. Some of the elk have begun to shed, which appears as darker splotches on their bodies.

I estimated that bulls constituted about a tenth of the herd. This low number makes sense, given that this herd is heavily hunted - and hunters strongly prefer to kill bulls. This herd's migration corridor is criss-crossed by 4wd roads, making it possible for a hunter to shoot an elk and haul it out without much physical exertion. Also, I know that there's a small band of bulls roaming the area, separated from the main herd. But, I'm not sure whether they rejoin this same herd or perhaps mingle with another herd for the summer and the mating season this coming fall.

I've written about the humungous dominant bull who announced his arrival as part of the herd in November with his loud bugling. In my recent distant views of the herd, that bull was missing. After seeing the whole herd close-up today, I'm certain that he's not present. I hope that he hasn't succumbed to starvation after an energy-consuming rut. The dominant males barely eat for a month or so as they posture and fight to keep control of their harems. That's why there's much higher winter mortality in bulls than in cows.

After seeing the elk herd, I headed for the trail where I recently glimpsed a mountain lion. It occurred to me that the situation was the same as on that day with the elk herd moving through the area and me heading down into the gulch. But, I didn't see any felines today.

Last summer, K and I hiked up to high lush meadows unsuccessfully searching for 'our' elk herd. We went to remote basins without trails that seemed like prime elk habitat but found no signs of an elk herd. In the meadows near our house, the scat remains recognizable for a year and the tracks dig so deeply into the mud that they're obvious for months. So, I expected that if the herd had been in the meadows we visited, I would've seen the signs. We did see a solitary young cow elk walking through the woods and a huge bull lying dead in the lake behind K in the photo (you can't see the bull).

The photo from our summer hike reminds me that it's going to be that green and lush before we know it!

We ended our day with the entire pack taking a relaxing hike at sunset and running into our best dog friend, JB, who frolicked with our dogs.


  1. I'm starting to have nightmares about mountain lions. Must be from reading the blog. ;o)

  2. Hi Mary,

    Thanks for your comment. I like your blog also. Keep it up!

    Your comment was appropriate because one of my dogs and I had a coyote encounter today (2/25). Check out the post, and my past posts about training my dogs not chase them. It can be very hard thing to do. You have to practice recalls until you're blue in the face with tons of rewards for successful ones. For lots of dogs, that's enough. For mine, it wasn't.


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