Burn scar won’t interfere with annual elk rut at Rocky Mountain National Park
The elk rut might look a little different this year on the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park following the East Troublesome Fire.
The elk rut in Rocky typically begins mid-September and last through mid-October. The infamous bugle, an eerie high-pitched squeal from the bulls during mating season, is already ringing through the park.
The Kawuneeche Valley is where elk tend to gather for the rut on the western side of the national park, but the East Troublesome Fire burned a lot of that landscape. While the fire might have some short-term effects on the elk, it doesn’t look like it’ll change the rut.
Hanem Abouelezz, landscape ecologist for Rocky Mountain National Park, explained that the annual winter census of elk on the eastern side of the park saw fewer elk following the fire. While the park doesn’t have data for elk on the western side, she said it’s likely that the same held true.
The speed of the East Troublesome Fire did lead to some animal deaths, with a small group of elk known to have been caught in the fire inside the park. Abouelezz also said some moose probably died due to the lack of forage over the winter as well.
“When I think about it, the fire came through at a difficult time — really late in the season as animals are getting ready for winter,” Abouelezz said. “(They) need to typically be on winter range at that point and foraging in that area. If that’s where they chose to hang out for the winter, that may have been pretty tough on them.”
Elk and moose cows would have been pregnant as they saw less forage available for grazing headed into the winter. Abouelezz said that it’s possible nutritional deficiencies could have affected their calving, which could in turn lead to a short-term decline in local populations.
To minimize disturbance during the elk rut, Rocky Mountain National Park officials ask visitors to follow these tips for viewing.
• Turn off car lights and engine immediately.
• Shut car doors quietly and keep conversations to a minimum.
• Observe and photograph from a distance comfortable to the elk. If the elk move away or their attention is diverted, you are too close!
• Stay by the roadside while viewing elk in park meadows. Travel is restricted to roadways and designated trails. Be aware of posted area closures.
• It is illegal to use artificial lights or calls to view or attract wildlife.
Despite these challenges, both mammals are doing relatively well. Even with the burned landscape immediately following the fire, Abouelezz said the collared moose on the west side have stuck around in the burn scar.
“They find those pockets,” she said. “They were using the main section of the Kawuneeche Valley. You can see — you probably saw — it was like emerald green out there (this summer).”
The biggest concern for Abouelezz relates to the riparian area in the lower Kawuneeche Valley. Many of the willows there burned, and the trees could struggle to regrow with the many grazing elk and moose in the area.
“Because we do have high herbivore use, sometimes it can be challenging for those willows to recover,” she said. “They need time to grow back and if they’re getting grazed and browsed every year very heavily, they may not recover. That’s something that we’ll want to keep an eye on for sure.”
If it becomes necessary, the park could intervene and add fences to give the new willows a chance to grow before the grazers get there.
In the long-term, the fire will be a big benefit to the elk, moose and deer in the park, especially in forested areas. The fire burned a lot of aging lodgepole forest that was full of dead and downed trees.
“That’s not super productive for wildlife. (There’s) not a lot to eat in places like that,” Abouelezz said of the old forest. “When these fires come through and burn all that out, it allows the sunlight to reach the forest floor. It allows nutrients to cycle, so we end up seeing increased productivity of plants that are palatable to wildlife.”
As for the annual rut, Abouelezz hasn’t noticed any dramatic changes and the elk are gathering in the same places. Kawuneeche Valley is considered elk summer range, though many will start the rut over there.
Most of the elk in Rocky, if they’re not on the eastern side already, will move over the Trail Ridge Road corridor and other alpine passes to finish their rut on the east side of the park through the next month or so. A smaller amount of elk are part of the East Troublesome herd, and they’ll stay west of the Continental Divide for the winter.
Abouelezz said she is feeling optimistic about the future for Rocky’s elk following the fire.
“Things should only get better as we move forward as opposed to getting worse,” she said. “So if it looks pretty normal right now, we would probably expect it look normal heading into the future.”
Abouelezz emphasized that while there may be short-term negative impacts on the elk and moose, those will largely be canceled out in the next five to 10 years because of the benefits fire brings to the forest.
She explained that ecosystems in the West depend on fire, though in the past those fires used to be low to medium in intensity. With megafires like the East Troublesome becoming much more common following years of fire suppression, she thinks it’s been a reminder that nature will find a way do what is necessary for ecosystems.
“We need to learn how can we work with these processes better, because whether we like it or not, we’re actually just another critter on the landscape,” she said.
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