• My latest book available in paperback and eBook formats

  • Available from Amazon paperback or Kindle

  • Updated w/double blind study results. Ebook or paperback

  • New updated edition available NOW!

  • Recent Posts

  • Tracking Footprints

  • Archives

  • Top Posts

  • Pages

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