From the Colorado Division of Wildlife
-- A major two-year wildlife habitat improvement project in Costilla County in south-central Colorado is aimed at keeping elk in forested meadowland and off of the pastures below.
The project, which will create more than 700 acres of new meadow habitat, is a cooperative effort of the Dos Hermanos Ranch, the Colorado Division of Wildlife, and the Mount Blanca Habitat Partnership Committee. Ron Rivale, a district wildlife manager in the area, explained that traditional elk winter range in this area in the western foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains has become densely forested. Consequently, elk move from the mountains in the fall onto high-value pasture in the valley between the New Mexico border and the town of San Luis.
"The elk herd is pretty big in the area and they can do a lot of damage to pasture and hay stacks," Rivale said. "With this project we'll open up some areas that we believe will keep the elk in a better location."
During spring and early summer in the last two years, the Dos Hermanos Ranch has worked with a private contractor to clear more than 700 acres of thickly-forested land. The dense growth prevented grasses and smaller plants from growing; consequently there was little forage available for big game animals.
By clearing areas in a mosaic pattern, a series of meadows have been created that will be attractive to elk. With sunlight now getting to the ground, shrubs, grasses and aspen trees can grow--all of which provide food for elk, explained Jim Webb of Forest Steward Concepts, a Monte Vista-based consulting company that designed the cutting plan.
"There was no forage in those areas, just pine needles and downed timber," Webb said. "Now we're getting lush growth. Elk utilized the newly cut areas last winter."
The cutting work was done by Rue Logging, based in South Fork. The company used a large-scale mowing machine that can reduce shrubs and trees to splinters in a matter of minutes.
The new meadows also provide a safer environment for the elk, Rivale said. In the pasture, elk are fully exposed and they must be on a constant lookout for predators. In the meadows, the elk can move easily into the thick forest if they perceive any danger.
Earl Valdez, manager of the 11,500-acre Dos Hermanos Ranch, said that the new meadows also will help reduce fire danger. In the past, natural wildfires helped to thin the forest and open up areas for wildlife. But now that the area is settled, most fires are put out as quickly as possible.
"Much of the ranch is forested and we are concerned about a devastating fire," Valdez said. "With this project we'll reduce that risk, help the wildlife and keep elk out of our pastures and our neighbors' pastures."
This a large-scale habitat improvement project and will cost about $240,000 which is being shared by the HPP program and the ranch owners.
"We've been working on solutions to this problem for a few years," Rivale said. "All of the land in Costilla County is private, so we need to work closely with the landowners to find solutions."
The effectiveness of the meadow areas will be evaluated again this winter and more areas on the ranch could be cleared next spring.
The Habitat Partnership Program is authorized by the Colorado Wildlife Commission and the Colorado Legislature to resolve conflicts between agricultural producers and wildlife, and to assist the DOW in meeting game management objectives. Local HPP committees meet regularly to review and fund projects to assist private landowners. More information about the HPP program can be obtained by calling the local DOW office or by going on the DOW’s website: http://wildlife.state.co.us/LandWater/PrivateLandProgram/.