What do Elk Eat (Elk Forage)?
The following plants are some of the more common examples of elk forage found throughout the Rocky Mountain area. Chances are good that if you find any of these plants in abundance in a particular area, elk will be nearby. Also keep in mind that if these plants are in abundance but you do not see any fresh signs of elk in the immediate area, you may want to consider scouting other nearby areas with abundant elk forage until you find sign of fresh elk activity. Also, if you happen to find a high density of these plants growing within or near security habitat and near a source of water, then you have most likely found an elk hot spot.
Clothing and Accessories
Synthetic clothing materials have created lighter weight, waterproof, breathable, scent proof, and silent fabrics that are all the rage. These aren’t cheap, but neither is wool anymore. Wool is the gold standard by which hunting clothes are measured, and no synthetic can rival the warmth and silence of wool, nor do they insulate as well when wet. However, wool is typically heavy, so outer garments are not well suited to the mobile western hunter. Light pants, sweaters or shirts used as an intermediate layer are the best uses for wool, as modern synthetic undergarments and lightweight waterproof outer layers can be used over wool clothing.
Another modern convenience is the hydration bladder. It hasn’t revolutionized hunting, but it is much more convenient than having to dig through a pack for a water bottle. If you are in the market for a new pack, you’d be wise to focus on those with hydration bladders. Titanium cookware, smaller stoves, and lighter tents have also increased the mobility of the back pack hunter.
You have decided you are going on an elk hunt in Colorado this year. You have your big game brochure, and you lean back in your easy chair and begin to visualize your hunt. I know that when I get that brochure and open it up for the first time, I am almost giddy with anticipation. My mind starts racing, and I run through all the possibilities of what this season could bring. While I can’t remember every harvest I’ve ever made, I can tell you that many of my fondest memories have been made at hunting camp. Some of them have been the stories spun around a campfire. Other stories were about how the elk weren’t acting the way we wanted them to but boy, did we get into the trout that year! One of the best meals I have ever had in camp was the year we weren’t seeing elk so we decided to go shoot some rabbits for stew.
It’s the little things that can make or break a hunt. Many hunters become “driven” by the need to harvest an elk, making the hunt more about the harvest than the opportunity to enjoy the experience. In the end it’s really just about the experience of getting there. I urge everyone to think outside of the box as you plan your hunt.
This “think outside the box” concept is all about looking to maximize the time you’ll spend in the woods and enjoy it to the fullest potential. I have a couple of examples which highlight opportunities to help you plan an enjoyable experience.
Elk Response to Disturbance
It is well-documented that elk alter their movement patterns in response to human-related disturbance. For example, a number of studies have demonstrated that elk tend to avoid roads2, 3, 4, 5 and that their survival declines as density of roads increases because of increasing vulnerability2, 6, 7, 8. During hunting season, elk will often seek out refuge on private lands or national parks where there is little or no hunting. In the White River National Forest in northwest Colorado, the opening day of archery season caused elk to move from public to private land9,10. Similarly, in the San Luis Valley in south-central Colorado, elk moved into Great Sand Dunes National Park in response to the opening of archery season11. Opening of rifle seasons are thought to cause additional shifts by elk away from public land to secure areas. Generally speaking, elk are adept at seeking out refuges to escape hunting pressure and will move many miles to do so.
The above information explains why hunters with access to private lands that are managed for limited hunting typically do well. Likewise, hunters gaining access to limited-harvest units by using preference points also fare well. However, most hunters do not have access to these optimal hunting situations during most years. For public-land hunters in over-the-counter units, efforts to get away from roads generally pay off. There tend to be fewer hunters and more elk in more remote areas. It is also helpful to obtain maps showing secondary roads, terrain features and public/private land ownership to evaluate where elk may be more likely to move in response to disturbance. If you lack the ability to hunt in remote areas, getting off the road even a short distance and still-hunting on foot can greatly increase your opportunities. It is not uncommon for animals to bed down in thick cover near roads and not be disturbed, even as hunters pass by on the road throughout the day. When hunting roaded areas, it is often helpful to identify patches of heavy cover where it appears elk might bed down to avoid being disturbed.
Elk Habitat Use
Elk utilize most habitat types occurring in western Colorado at some point during the year. However, some habitat types are far more productive than others. Arguably, the most productive habitat for elk is aspen. Aspen typically has extremely productive understory and supports large numbers of elk. It is likely no coincidence that Colorado has both more aspen and more elk than any other western state or province.
Other extremely productive habitats that commonly occur in proximity to aspen are oakbrush and mountain shrub. Oakbrush habitat provides food and a good source of cover. It is not uncommon for elk to spend their days in oakbrush during hunting season because it provides great security. Oakbrush can be very difficult to hunt because it is thickly vegetated and difficult to quietly stalk through. Hunters that learn how to hunt oakbrush effectively, however, are often rewarded.
Perhaps the best combination of habitat for elk is mosaics of aspen, oakbrush, and mountain shrub, which provide optimal forage and cover. Aspen is also commonly located in proximity to conifer habitats. Spruce-fir forests with intermingled aspen stands are another example of prime elk habitat. The spruce-fir forest provides cover and the aspen understory provides a source of quality forage. Generally speaking, large tracts of mature conifer forest are not that productive for elk because they have limited understory. Ponderosa pine forests can be an exception because they often support a relatively robust, herbaceous understory, and, therefore, can be quite productive for elk, particularly along the front range of Colorado where there is less aspen and oakbrush.
As mentioned above, spruce-fir forests provide a good source of cover and are valuable when adjacent to more productive habitats. Lodgepole pine forests are typically unproductive and of utility to elk only when adjacent to other habitat or when used as escape cover from hunting pressure. As a general rule, the utility of conifer forests depends heavily on how much they are intermixed with meadows or other habitats. The exception to that rule is in October when forage in meadows and more open aspen stands has cured while forage in the conifer understory is still green and lush. Elk may not venture out in the open if the forage and security are better in coniferous forests.
Alpine habitats, above treeline, offer a productive habitat for elk during summer and early fall and can be heavily utilized by elk. Alpine habitat can offer good hunting opportunities during early-fall hunting seasons, particularly if adjacent conifer habitat is not very productive. Hunting pressure and frost both make the alpine less appealing as fall advances. At the other extreme, elk can be found in pinyon-juniper and lower-elevation sagebrush habitats, particularly later in the season as elk move to lower elevations.
Understanding Elk in Colorado
By Chad J. Bishop, PhD.
As hunters, we commonly seek out information on the animals we hunt in hopes it will explain exactly when and where to find them. We quickly learn, time and again, it’s not that simple. All too often, we find that what works one time fails miserably the next, and we can go from a state of euphoria to desperation in the course of just a few hunts. Much of this inconsistency can be attributed to variability in animal behavior, weather, and habitat conditions. Over time, however, we gradually improve our hunting skills by combining our understanding of the animals with lessons learned from our many hunting experiences. Thus, it is beneficial to understand the ecology of the animals we pursue, as long as we keep our expectations in check and appreciate that the systems we hunt can be extremely variable. My objective here is to present a basic picture of elk ecology in Colorado. My hope is to give the novice elk hunter a better idea of where to begin and to help the seasoned hunter make a little more sense out of past experiences afield.
You are in control of your hunt. Only you can put in the time and effort that it will take to have a successful hunt and build the memories that will literally last you a lifetime. Just through the draw, you control the season you hunt – whether it’s during the rut, early season or a late season. You have the tools to control the terrain you hunt, the weapon of choice and, most importantly, the animal you harvest. It’s always scary to think about drawing your trophy unit, and making the decision to harvest a 350-class bull on the first day of the hunt. However, if you do your homework and you go into the fight prepared, you can make an educated decision. You will know which animals are typically in the area during that time of year, and you will have more “intel” on them than they have on you.
When my Colorado Big Game Brochure arrives in the mail each year, I find myself restricted to the fireplace on cold late winter mornings. I begin to daydream about the fall season and think about the opportunities to chase an elk, one of the most challenging big game animals in North America. Many new hunters do not realize the diverse weather conditions that can exist in Colorado on any given day in any given month and, therefore, affecting where and when to hunt. The dry early seasons can drive elk high in the timber and other places where hunters have not found them in the past. In some cases, the elk do not begin normal migration until after the regular rifle seasons has concluded. Hunters who have adapted hunting techniques to the dark timber are often rewarded with an opportunity for quality bulls. Heavy spring rains can make for an excellent forage base and excellent antler growth. If the spring is productive in rains and forage, the bulls are sure to be remarkable animals.
With the potential for the next elk season to provide an awesome opportunity, it is time to figure out the best places to hunt and how to apply for a license from the limited license draw system. I understand the limited license application system used in Colorado can be a bit daunting to the first time participant, but there is a great deal of help out there to assist you in finding the right unit, applying for a license, and planning for your fall elk hunting experience in Colorado. Colorado is a big state, with over 23 million square acres of public lands if you include national and state forests, State Trust Lands and State Wildlife Areas. The state has been divided into 185 Game Management Units (GMUs) to define our hunting areas in order to allow Colorado Parks and Wildlife to not only better manage the wildlife resource but also to limit hunting pressure by restricting licenses in some units. In any case, for the new elk hunter it can be a daunting task to determine where in the state to plan an elk hunt. I will address this topic in a future article in detail, but for now, take a look at the Plan Your Hunt guide as a good starting point.
WILDERNESS BACKCOUNTRY BOW HUNTS
The wilderness backcountry bow hunt is our newest offering. We are not new to archery or wilderness hunting. But we have developed this new hunt to maximize your opportunity at taking home a trophy of a lifetime. We took the amenities of a big base camp and shrunk them down to a small spike camp style hunt. By employing small camps we are able to camp closer to the game and spend less time on horseback riding to and from hunting areas giving you more time to spend in the field hunting.
These 2 hunter 1 guide camps are located deep in the heart of elk county that is only accessible by foot or horseback. We pack all of your gear into camp by horseback. Then you are left with your guide for 6 days of remarkable hunting. The hunting area consists of deep grassy valleys, stands of dark timber, high ridges, and parks of alpine tundra above timberline. Numerous wallows decorate the many secluded basins. Mornings usually include bugling bulls. Afternoons will find you sitting active wallows or high on a ridge glassing elk.