Author’s note: Background for this article came from personal experience, discussions with long-time, Colorado elk hunters, and observation of elk in their natural habitats. You can find both general and specific information by typing “elk migration” or “elk behavior” into your favorite internet search engine. Somewhat detailed research about the annual migrations in Jackson, Wyoming, is available from several sources and several studies. Actual data on Colorado elk migrations appears to be sparse. Migration route maps are available, as noted in the article below. These can be helpful in scouting and hunting areas (game management units) you choose to frequent. As wise and successful hunters suggest, however, “The secret to a successful elk hunt is being there when the elk are there” and “Experience is the only real teacher.”
Scrub cedar, not much taller than you, forms your cover. You have been here more than an hour, and you’re beginning to wonder if the sun decided to sleep in. You are in the fourth day of your late season elk hunt in the second week of December, east of Craig, Colorado, not far from Maybell.
You begin to feel colder as the pre-dawn temperature drops, and you say a silent “thank you” for those past hunts that taught you how to dress for long waits in ice, snow, and wind. Still, as the deep black sky yields to slight shades of gray, the chill settles in and you shift your position for warmth that you know is not really there.
Carefully, you extend your body movement to turn your head in a wide eye-scan of the horizon. You see, or perhaps just sense, movement. You try to force your eyes to give shape to…and there they are!!! Elk!!! Wapiti!!! Even in the gray-dawn, you can see them moving in a fast, steady, purposeful walk in unison a thousand yards away. There's intensity in their almost straight-line “forced march” attitude.
The light increases as you peer into the group of moving elk. You see several sets of antlers. Cows are interspersed among the bulls. You consciously note that you and your hunting partner are too far away to take a shot, just as another powerful realization expands your mind.
You look again, just to confirm what you thought you saw. The herd leaders are already out of sight. Elk are disappearing over a low hillcrest almost half-a-mile away. You have no idea how many of these animals have passed you by, and you can still see elk, seemingly 20 or more across, for more than a mile behind those in the lead.
You are witnessing an elk migration - elk in seasonal movement from higher elevations to lower and from snow-covered forage to better, greener pastures. And, as you watch, in a reverent sense of awe, you realize this may be - probably is - a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Two days prior to opening day of late season on Colorado’s Western Slope, few elk had been seen in the area around Craig. Many first and second-season hopefuls had traded their “hunter” titles for unfilled tags and designation as “armed hikers.” But the day before this late season opening on December 7, something happened to change the whole hunting landscape.
Mother Nature brought together moisture, cold and perfect timing to make snow. The white powder fell all afternoon and most of the night. It wasn't a lot, only three to four inches, but it was “just the right amount.” The elk “herded up.” Two, three, four and five days later, they were still moving.
We estimated the migrating herd at more than fifteen hundred head; that’s what we could see and roughly count. That same day, at about the same time, three other hunters watched a similar herd several miles east of our location. They estimated that herd at more than three-thousand.
We filled two licenses later that day. Over the next five days, others in our party filled six more tags. Yes, it was a good hunt, and you can get a taste of the experience. For now, you will have to settle for the difference between being there and being a spectator. You can see similar elk movement by pulling up “Elk Migration” on YouTube. A number of elk and caribou migrations are photo-documented there.
Elk are, by nature, a migratory species except where seasonal changes are moderate. (Roosevelt Elk, of the Pacific Coast regions in California, Oregon and Washington States do not migrate. This is probably due to little variation between their winter and summer climates.)
Other subspecies of elk migrate up to 100 miles. Primarily, these large members of the deer family annually travel from higher to lower elevations in winter, then move from lower elevations back to higher altitude as winter yields to spring and warmer weather prevails.
Snow is one of the triggers for seasonal elk migration since it reduces the availability of forage. Survival and reproduction are key reasons for migration activity. However, stating “migration” as what elk do and stating that the reason elk migrate is survival and reproduction provides far too simple an understanding.
In some circumstances, elk move from a variety of high elevation, summer range locations to band together in one general winter range area. (This is documented by numerous researchers and writers regarding elk that winter near Jackson, Wyoming.) Winter feeding programs contribute to elk migrations in that area but not in others, such as those in Colorado.
More than 100 separate migration routes are documented and mapped in Larimer and Jackson Counties of northern Colorado. Hundreds more cover Colorado hunting areas west of Interstate 25. You can purchase Google map overlays for Colorado and Wyoming GPS use or you can download migration route overlays for Google Earth at the moderate cost of $5.00 to $7.50.
You can use a “MapIt” program that topographically details each of the game management units. This mapping tool also has overlays that graphically highlight summer ranges, winter ranges and severe winter ranges of elk and other big game animals.
Yet the fact that elk movements and migration routes can be defined and mapped is just a beginning. Additional movement information becomes nearly impossible to know with any certainty. Multiple and unpredictable factors add to the complexity of the hunt.
Dry forests and draught areas at lower elevation can dramatically impact migration patterns. Uncommonly cold winters can cause elk to seek deep timber for the insulation qualities of the cover or for food. As mentioned, high elevation snowfall can trigger elk migration while low elevation heavy snow can change eating habits and cause elk to change their normal winter ranges.
Migrating elk do move through stressed areas. They also move through heavily-hunted areas rather than skirting them. The lack of good forage and hunting stress cause elk to change behavior as they experience changes in their circumstances; yet such adverse conditions do not keep the elk from making their seasonal migrations.
Professional wildlife observers and experienced hunters report that in “stress” circumstances migrating elk will seek deep or black timber and will separate into smaller bands and scatter into heavy cover individually or in very small groups of perhaps one to three animals.
In heavy snows, elk that have already migrated appear to know the situation or sense their plight. Aspen groves in lower elevations that suffer such snowfalls tell the tale after such a winter. Tooth marks remain clearly visible in standing trees at elk head levels while large, downed Aspens show only tooth marks in the actual tree trunk wood where bark has been totally stripped.
Factors and complexities involved with elk migrations do not end here. Large, migrating herds, which aren't under stress, seem to demonstrate the same behavior traits as much smaller “herds” of a dozen to 25 animals. In other words, they feed at the same times, move in early morning and late afternoon, rest at mid to late morning hours, and feed at night. However, once the shooting starts, all of that changes.
You might make the observation that elk are migratory creatures. They will migrate within their environment as nature dictates. Generally elk also migrate in similar patterns to the same areas year-to-year or season-to- season. Yet it can be as difficult to find these big game creatures as it is to get an accurate tip on a stock market trade.
You see, elk are predictable to the degree that their migratory routes can be drawn on a map, and the map is accurate until the snow flies early or late, until a draught hits at high elevation or low, until a blight wipes out a favorite forage in a favorite area, until the snow becomes more than belly deep to an average Wapiti, or... until the first shot is fired on opening day!