Meet the Ranchers Working to Sustain the World's Largest Elk Population

Meet the Ranchers Working to Maintain the World’s Largest Elk Inhabitants


At Eagle Rock Ranch in Jefferson, Colorado, the elk begin to collect at nightfall. “I’ll be driving up the highway, and the herd will probably be on the facet, nearly like they’re ready to come back and spend the evening consuming right here,” says Dave Gottenborg with a chuckle.

Gottenborg is working to create a habitat on his ranch that sustains the elk inhabitants. The ranch sits on the migratory path of the massive animals, and each winter, tons of of them journey by Eagle Rock on the lookout for meals as they transfer from increased to decrease elevations. You can see their presence as a wildlife administration success story or a nuisance, relying on the way you have a look at them. Perhaps a little bit of each. 

“Elk can present an indicator of how effectively habitats are functioning,” says Karie Decker, director of wildlife and habitat for the Rocky Mountain Elk Basis, which works to make sure the animals have the habitat they should thrive. “They’ve a direct function on vegetation by herbivory and seed dispersal, create wallows and function prey and carrion for a lot of different wildlife species.”

In accordance with the Rocky Mountain Elk Basis, earlier than Europeans settled in North America, greater than 10 million elk have been roaming across the US and elements of Canada, however as a result of overhunting and habitat loss, their numbers dwindled to 40,000 on the flip of the twentieth century. 

That’s when conservationists and authorities companies started efforts to revive elk populations by protected areas and controlled searching. Right this moment, Colorado is residence to 280,000 elk, the most important inhabitants on this planet. Regardless of these efforts, sustaining that inhabitants is a problem.

Each winter herds of elk come by Eagle Rock Ranch in quest of meals. (Photograph courtesy of Eagle Rock Ranch)

Threats to the elk embody every part from local weather change to manufactured boundaries that may stifle their every day and seasonal actions, land improvement, visitors, elevated human leisure exercise, fencing and conflicts with human actions.

“In Colorado, elk and plenty of different species had a really difficult winter in 2022-2023, with a deep snowpack for an prolonged interval, considerably lowering the inhabitants in northwest Colorado,” says Decker. “Different challenges to elk throughout numerous states embody improvement and the lack of habitat, lack of or low-quality forage, drought, illness and social tolerance.”

Eagle Rock Ranch has been in operation, primarily as a cow-calf operation, for greater than 150 years, however Gottenborg, who runs the ranch along with his spouse, Jean Gottenborg, daughter Erin Michalski and son-in-law Matt Michalski, is comparatively new to Eagle Rock, buying the ranch about 12 years in the past. The elk got here with it.

“My predecessor fought them for years,” says Gottenborg. “He did in all probability every part a landowner might legally do to chase elk off the property, with blended outcomes. He had propane cannons and salt and pepper shells, and he would get into these huge arguments with the Forest Service and CPW [Colorado Parks and Wildlife].”

The Gottenborgs try to create secure passage and habitat for the migrating elk. (Photograph courtesy of Eagle Rock Ranch)

Elk should not small guests. Males can weigh as much as 700 kilos and stand 5 ft on the shoulder, females as much as 500 kilos and 4-1/2 ft on the shoulder. 

“They’re very giant, decided eaters,” says Kara Van Hoose, Northeast Area public data officer for CPW. “They may devour hay and different grains left outdoors for home animals and livestock. Elk are recognized to be damaging of their pursuit of meals, toppling over containers, ruining fences and different infrastructure and consuming giant swaths of crops.”

Nonetheless, the Gottenborgs determined to welcome the elk, hoping to make them a profit to the ranch. Since shopping for the ranch, the Gottenborgs have been working to diversify their earnings with the purpose of conserving themselves and different ranchers on the land and sustaining the open landscapes. They’ve dipped their toes into agritourism with curated experiences, together with fly fishing, ranch excursions and eco-tours, and so they see the elk as one other earnings stream.

Packages comparable to Elk Lease in Montana, from the nonprofit Property and Atmosphere Analysis Heart, and the USDA’s Migratory Massive Sport Initiative in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana pay landowners for offering elk habitat. Whereas there isn’t a program arrange but to do the identical in Colorado, the Gottenborgs are in talks with organizations that may pay for the elk to have forage entry to their pastures within the winter.

Through the winter months when the elk are migrating by the property, the Gottenborgs’ cattle are in Nebraska, so the Gottenborgs don’t want to fret about cows and elk competing for meals. By the point the cows are again on the ranch, the elk have moved again as much as increased floor. To make it simpler for the elk to graze with out the chance of getting caught of their fences, they’ve began making modifications to make it simpler for them to maneuver up and down the valley. 

“The hope right here, too, is that my neighbors are watching me. That they’re following what we’re doing and we will broaden the idea, so, finally, there’s 10 or 12 miles of this valley opened up when it comes to simpler entry,” says Gottenborg.

The Gottenborgs try to diversify the ranch’s earnings with the elk, agritourism excursions and extra. (Photograph courtesy of Eagle Rock Ranch)

Elk-friendly fencing that may be laid down flat on the bottom to assist seasonal wildlife passage is dear. Nonetheless, the Gottenborgs imagine there’s sufficient curiosity within the forage entry that they’ll be capable of make extra modifications. They’re not laying down the entire fences, however they will simply monitor the migration patterns of the elk within the snow, so that they lay down particular fencing sections whereas conserving their gates open.

In 2023, the Gottenborgs additionally put in 5 giant, shallow-pool buildings that maintain recent water with pumps powered by photo voltaic panels. The drinkers, because the Gottenborgs name them, present water within the increased elevation pastures throughout the hotter months and the shoulder seasons the place pure water sources aren’t current and assist to distribute wildlife throughout the panorama higher. They’re hoping to put in further drinkers this yr.

“The elk have been right here a very long time, and we’re making an attempt to alter our method to make them an asset,” says Gottenborg.


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