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The Elk and the Artemisia

I’ve been watching the elk for weeks around here.  Not like the college kids doing the study though.  They get up and out the door at dawn (when its frigid outside), locate the collared elks they need to watch that day, set up their tripods and scopes. and observe each elk for 15 minutes.  They carry a digital voice recorder and make verbal notes–now they’re eating, now they’re sitting, now they’re chewing, etc.  They’ve really gotten to know their elks.  They call them by number, tell me if they’re too up country that day to observe, or that some have already gone back towards Yellowstone.

The study, as far as I understand it, is to try and determine what’s causing the low birth rates in the Sunlight elk herd–whether it be dietary, predators, or other factors. The interns in my valley are the ‘back country’ team.  They told me they’ve even seen the elk gnawing on antlers and bones.

I have been wondering about their diet for a while.  The sagebrush on the flats are browsed to crew-cut height.  crew-cut Big Sagebrush

Not browsed ArtemisiaApparently Big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) is an important food in the winter.  The guys think they eat the Sage when the snow cover is high because the Artemisias are taller. As the new grasses emerge, they migrate elevationally, eating the new growth.  The sage, though, provides protein that the grasses don’t.

I was curious about the deer and the elk and how much their diets overlap.  I see them grazing together a lot.  Elk with deerIn biology there’s a fancy term called ‘resource partitioning’, which basically means that the deer and elk just couldn’t be competing for the same foods in the same area or there wouldn’t be enough food.  Yet I watch the deer nibble the sage and eat new grasses as well.  But according to studies, grasses comprise 75% of an elks’ diet, whereas only about 25% of a mule deers. The guys were telling me that the elk get first choice from their observations.

Last year they did an aerial count and came up with around 1400 elk overwintering in the valley.  A forest service ranger told me that was carrying capacity.

Almost every hike I take I scare elk out of the trees at some point.  The funny thing is that I can be over 500 yards away,  and they still scatter.  My neighbor says they weren’t always that skittish.  He says before the wolves you could approach them fairly closely.  The deer here still can be trained to eat out of your hand.

But since I’ve lived here, the elk are sensitive to any slight movements. Last week I saw a herd high up on a rocky slope.  They watched me for a brief few moments, decided I was a threat, then took off.  Minutes later I came to a prominence that looked out over a treeless meadow.  From all sides came elk, over 150.  They gathered into a large herd and began moving like a flock of birds, turning and swaying this way and that, splitting up then coming back together.Elk beginning to gather

Deer watch us; Koda watches deer

3 Responses

  1. Also Leslie,
    You are stressing elk by hiking around in their winter range. From the time winter begins until summer, elk are losing body condition no matter what forage they eat. Add in the mega fauna predators, and they are barely making it day to day. Perhaps that is why Sunlight area elk pregnancy rates are so low, and cow calf ratios are 10:100. Stress. So if you love them, avoid them and where they reside until summer. Don’t stress them. You’ve probably busted elk out of the timber that you’ve never even observed. The antler hunters are another subject. Thank you.


    • codycountry, it stresses the elk just to drive by them, which is where they are most of the time, right along the road. As opposed to the mule deer, who just stand and stare. Those photos are mostly from the road. I’ve seen deer prance through a herd just playing and the elk start to run. Viewing them with a good scope is always the best. Also, it seems the jury is not yet in on all the data on the studies they are doing up here. Certainly the prolonged drought has been a factor. As with the forest, the elk populations are changing.


      • Leslie,
        The elk on Riddle flat don’t move much, unless you stop and make them nervous. They didn’t used to do that. However I still don’t see them stressed by vehicles driving by or they would not stay there in such close proximity to the county road. Ten years ago they behaved much differently, and there were ~2,500 head on the Sunlight meadows, a thousand head at Way West spilling on down toward the mouth of Sunlight creek in Jan/Feb./Mar. Elk everywhere. The highway was covered both sides with elk. Not nervous about people, vehicles. I wonder what changed, people driving up the road?? Newcomers writing blogs? Cody people reading blogs from California newcomers?
        Wolves & grizzly bear at “recovery”, are what changed the elk. Droughts come and go and are an easy way for those folk who want to blame something other than reality. The Mega Fauna bloom is what is going on in Sunlight, and in other places of the Rocky mountain west, along with changing habitat conditions, second.
        We know what’s going on, and the UW/GF study will probably, maybe, tell the tale.
        This conundrum is a combination of many factors, not one. But one factor can tip the scale. The human factor is all we have left that we can control.


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