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.