Photo Essay: Elk and aspen in the Colorado high country
Fall is a wonderful time of year in the Colorado High Country. The days are warm and sunny and the nights are cool. The cooler temperatures at night paint the mountains with brilliant splashes of color as the aspen leaves begin to change and an eerie sound echoes across the meadows. The sound is the bugling of the bull elk and it signals the beginning of the rut or breeding season.
The bugle of a bull elk sounds like a bellow, which changes to a squealing whistle, which ends with grunt. It is a sound that is hard to describe, but once heard and identified, can never be mistaken for anything else.
Antlers that were shed in early spring have grown back and have been stripped of their blood filled velvet covering. They are now solid bone, and a set of antlers on a mature elk can weigh as much as forty pounds. The antlers are a visual signal to the cows of power and breeding suitability. The cows will mate with the strongest, most successful males, which usually turn out to be the bulls with the biggest antlers.
In order to prove that they are the biggest and most viral, the bull elks use their antlers in violent clashes with other bulls to determine who gets to mate. Elk do not fight to the death, but, in any contest with powerful animals that weigh as much as seven hundred pounds, fatal accidents can and do happen.
One of the best places to see elk in Colorado is in Rocky Mountain National Park. During the breeding season, the elk come down from the high mountain forests and congregate into breeding groups, or harems, in the meadows. Each harem is controlled and defended by a bull elk.
Entering from the Fall River entrance on Highway 34, Elk can be found at Sheep Lakes and West Horseshoe Park. From the Beaver Meadows entrance on Highway 36, try the meadows in Moraine Park and the area around the Cub Lake trailhead. These are only suggestions for the eastern side of the mountains and the rangers at the park entrances will have up to date information.
While you are in the high country, spend a little time enjoying the fall color spread across the mountain sides by the turning of the aspens.
The aspen is a “succession” tree, which quickly grows in areas where other vegetation was lost because of fire, insects or disease. This is why you will see patches of color on mountainsides in the fall.
The aspen is a fast growing tree which reproduces not only by seed, but also by extensive suckering. An aspen grove starts as off shoots from the roots of a mother tree, which arrived at the site by seed.
This means that the aspen grove, which is made up of many “trees”, may be a single plant and the “trees” are growths from the root system. A stand of aspen is really one large organism where the central plant is underground. A huge, one hundred acre grove of aspens in Utah has nearly 50,000 trees growing from a single root system.
Aspen leaves are broad and attach to branches by way of a single long stalk. The slightest breeze causes the leaves to tremble with a rustling sound. Beneath the white outer bark of the aspen is a thin green layer that allows the plant to synthesize sugars and keep growing even during the winter. This green layer of the bark makes it a survival food for elk during hard winters. The dark scars on the lower part of aspen trees are the result of elk feeding.
Dawn and dusk are the periods of most activity by the elk. As the days and nights grow cooler you will see more and more elk inside the town of Estes Park, Colo. Keep in mind that elk are not domestic animals. Even though the elk have become acclimated to the presence of humans, they are still wild animals and there is no predicting how these wild animals will react at any given time. Every year, people are seriously injured by getting too close to an elk. Enjoy the spectacle and do not become a statistic. ❖
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