Don’t be surprised to see elk calves thanks to lingering winter snowpack

This young elk calf was photographed earlier this spring on the Uncompahgre Plateau. the photographer and his family watched the calf from a distance for a short while and left, knowing the animal’s mother probably was in the vicinity and watchign every move. Wildlife officers say leaving young animals alone is the best move.

The lingering winter snowpack has had an interesting side effect: Elk calves are showing up in rancher’s yards.

“We’ve had some ranchers say the elk are calving in their pastures this spring,” said Bill de Vergie, Meeker area manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. “The snow was too deep for the elk to make it up to their calving grounds. Rancher often report seeing a calf or two but this year there are more than ever.”

It shouldn’t surprise you to stumble upon a fawn or calf this time of year in your early-summer backcountry wandering.

There’s still enough snow up high to keep deer and elk in the transition zones, the same place you like so much, and when the time comes to become a mom, there’s no place like where you are.

Residents of elk-friendly Estes Park often see a new calf or two and last year, residents became concerned when a cow elk gave birth to her calf in a popular town park.

It wasn’t so much seeing the calf but dealing with the aggressively protective cow that provoked the concern.

Reports say the elk would charge anyone walking in the area, turning a casual stroll into a possibly dangerous situation.

Estes Park police roped off the area for a few days until the calf was big enough to leave on its own.

Which brings us to what you should do if you come across a fawn or elk calf.

Thirty years ago, a Gunnison National Forest roadgrader driver named Cecil Metroz was dissuading a punky college-type from learning to drive the large, immensely noisy machine.

“There’s two levers here,” explained the ancient Metroz, with as much patience as he could muster. He pronounced the word to rhyme with “beaver.”

“There’s lever A and lever B. And you just lever B,” he finished, roaring with laughter.

And our advice is, if you find a young animal, just “lever B.”

Wildlife agencies remind us each spring that well-intentioned desires to save apparently abandoned young animals often lead to unintended consequences, including the animal’s death.

“A human baby needs constant attention, but this is not the case with wildlife,” said Travis Black, Lamar area wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. “In fact, female animals often leave their offspring alone for long periods of time.

“A person that decides to intervene is often the worst thing that can happen.”

You can be sure mom isn’t too far away, and she’s watching you.

Deer and elk use several techniques to help their young avoid predators, said Ron Stewart of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

“Often these strategies make it look like the adults have abandoned their young,” Steward said. “Actually, they’re doing the best thing possible to protect their young.”

New fawns and elk calves aren’t very coordinated right after birth and so Mother Nature gave them camouflage and made them nearly scentless.

Most of the animals that prey on fawns have a good sense of smell. But they can see only in black and white.

“Deer fawns are born scentless,” Stewart says. “They don’t have an odor, and predators can’t smell them.”

The spotted pattern also plays key role.

When the young animal falls to the ground and stays motionless, the spots are a natural camouflage that can fool even sharp-eyed predators.

Or humans following a radio signal.

I’ve tagged along with DOW biologists doing fawn monitoring and we’ve walked right past a motionless fawn even though the radio signal told us the general area.

Whether those newborns are truly scentless or just nearly so for the first few days, once they begin to move around about a week after birth, they spread their scent, making them more obvious to predators.

Predation studies have shown bears and coyote working into the wind while hunting fawns and calves, but this might be more opportunistic predation while searching a known fawning/calving area.

So if elk calves and fawns truly are scentless, how do the mothers recognize their own young?

Through calls, according to studies done by the Texas Deer Association.

The fawns’ camouflaged pattern and its near-lack of scent causes the does to communicate vocally in order to relocate offspring.

And if you’ve been around elk cows and calves, you’ve heard the constant chirping that tells everyone where the others are.

But once the scentless period is over the fawn is more susceptible to predators.

And if you’re foolish enough to pick up or touch a fawn or elk calf, you’ve put your scent on it, which might be a drawing card for predators.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department says studies show coyotes following human scent trails while preying on fawns.

Like old Cecil said, “You just lever B.”


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