The first time I got really up close and personal with an elk was in the middle of the night on State Road 522 between Costilla and El Rito. The second time I got up close and personal with an elk was 5 miles south on the very same road.
Both of them emerged from the blackness on the east side of the highway, stopped midpavement to stare me down in the glare of my headlights and then took off into the darkness.
One near miss is more than enough to make you take a breather. It was for me. I got out of my mid-1990s (that is, small) Toyota to fill my lungs with brisk fall air and slow my heart down to a reasonable beat instead of the chest-rattling rhythm that sounded an awful lot like hooves on pavement.
Like a lot of boys from the South, I grew up hunting in the deer woods. I know the whole song and dance that would start with waking up before dawn to ride next to my dad and brothers in a cold pickup. My family later got in the habit of doing the same thing — not to go hunting, but to check out the elk in Arkansas’ Buffalo River Valley in the Ozark Mountains.
It was usually during the rut, right when you could hear the pitch and grunt of bulls bugling or see two of them duking it out in the middle of a herd of a hundred or more. With only about 450 elk in Arkansas, it was a rarefied experience, though in later years, the road was usually crowded and clogged with onlookers.
The elk of my birthplace and this more recent home may be half a country away, but their stories aren’t altogether different. In both places, the native elk were extirpated, that is, they became regionally extinct. The fact that New Mexico is again home to elk is a testament to a number of reintroductions from Wyoming herds over half a century. That Arkansas has even the modest number it does is a testament to management in the West.
Be it the Sangres or the Ozarks — wherever you experience an elk — there’s no doubt it’s putting you face to face with one of the most magnificent animals in North America.
Elk are the very definition of iconic. Given their status in this county’s mythos (and Taos’ particular culture), it can be hard to imagine our landscape without elk.
But that’s how it was for part of the 20th century.
The variety of elk that roamed New Mexico, the Merriam’s elk, wasn’t just killed off locally. It was made extinct by 1909.
Just 12 elk were released into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in 1911, kicking off 50 years of reintroductions. By 1933, the herds were big enough to hold the first public hunt. Six years later, elk were reintroduced to the Philmont Scout Ranch in Colfax County and around Tres Piedras. Even more reintroductions were done before the program petered out by 1966.
Since then, the population of elk in New Mexico has exploded. In 2015, 156 elk were bagged in the “big game unit” (hunting region) that contains the Peñasco and Taos Canyon herds. Even that harvest was below the goal state officials set that year.
“There are some places where there’s just too many elk,” said George Long, wildlife biologist with the Carson National Forest.
The U.S. Forest Service doesn’t manage the wildlife species that live in the Carson (that’s the job of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish), but it does manage their habitat. A lot of that management comes down to “finding the balance with livestock grazing so we’re not overgrazing the landscape by elk or cattle,” Long said. “We have occasions of both.”
Where elk herds start to overgraze in high-mountain meadows, the Forest Service will use prescribed burns to open the forested understory so a new layer of grass and shrubs can sprout.
Hungry and on the move
Food actually drives elk to get on the move.
During this time of year, elk (largely browsers, not grazers) are spending a lot of time on the south-facing slopes, according to Long. If the ground isn’t frozen, there’s usually plenty of little shoots of green grass under the snow and young branches and buds on shrubs and trees. There’s also “barking,” a practice in which the elk chew bark off the main stem of aspens.
But if elk don’t have a lot to eat in the mountains, the herds move lower. That’s why they’ve been seen off of Cruz Alta Road in Taos this winter. Likewise, the Taos Plateau herd is joined by elk from the southern portion of Colorado that make the yearly winter trip to the Río Grande del Norte National Monument — a critical track of refuge habitat that is home to more migratory animals during the winter.
In the spring, when calving starts, elk bed down in the mountains. The Valle Vidal unit of the Carson National Forest is widely regarded as having a superb elk population, where hunting licenses are actually “once in a lifetime.” The former Pennzoil-owned track of forest is partially closed from May to June in order to protect elk (particularly the mothers) from too much disturbance.
“Mother elk will sometimes go off grazing for 24 hours at a time,” Long said. If a human walks up, she might run off and leave her vulnerable calf behind, meaning the young are open and exposed to predation. That leads — at least once a year in the Sangres, he said — to another unfortunate situation: people “rescuing” an elk calf before it’s been imprinted on the mother, essentially condemning that young animal to death because it can never be returned to the wild.
No discussion of elk would be complete without talking about a lot of people’s favorite time of year: the hunt.
Hunting is a part of the local culture not because of the trophy, but the sustenance.
“People have been filling their freezers with meat from hunting since before there were freezers,” said Garrett VeneKlasen, director of New Mexico Wildlife Federation, who moved to Taos 16 years ago because of the opportunities to hunt elk in the area.
“When I can draw a tag, that’s how I feed my family through the winter, too,” he said.
But historically speaking, elk hunting (to the degree it’s practiced now) is relatively new.
“The iconic hunting animals around Taos for a long time were the mule deer and bighorn sheep,” VeneKlasen said. “We went from having zero elk in the entire state to having the huge, burgeoning population in New Mexico today.”
From a management perspective, hunting is also a way to cull the elk population and keep it at a sustainable level.
Half of the elk licenses doled out each year go to public lottery, or draw. The rest go to private landowners. A decade ago, 70 percent went to the public draw, according to VeneKlasen.
Elk, like all wildlife, are held in the “public trust,” he said. Yet the current 50-50 distribution of licenses is a problem because fewer Taoseños have a good shot at pulling a tag each year, VeneKlasen said.
“Elk are the poster children of wildlife privatization in New Mexico,” he said.
VeneKlasen acknowledges that private landowners are an integral part of managing habitat and keeping the elk population in check. “This is where it becomes complicated … because some landowners have come to rely on wildlife management as the primary economic driver for their property,” he said.
Yet the state’s system of licensing — and of selling and bartering elk hunts — “has becoming a racket,” he said. It’s a multimillion-dollar industry in the state. He estimated elk hunts generate about $80 million a year in New Mexico.
“The average Taoseño has to rely on drawing a tag in the public lottery to go elk hunting,” VeneKlasen said. “But more Texans and Oklahomans are shooting these elk. So [locals] don’t have the opportunity to hunt them. This is the scariest part — hunting is a traditional value, but it’s being sold off to the highest bidder. How do you perpetuate a culture if only the privileged [get] the opportunity to do it every year?”
The New Mexico Wildlife Foundation is “fighting tooth and nail to reverse that [privatization] trend,” he said, by helping introduce legislation in New Mexico that would put more elk tags back into the public lottery.
For the undeterred hunters out there, don’t forget to put in your name before the March 22 deadline.
The other hunting
For the folks who still want to scout and track elk, but aren’t into killing them, spring brings the opportunity to hunt for elk antlers.
Bulls generally drop their antlers from February to April. According to Valerie Williams, biologist with the local Bureau of Land Management office, it’s a longtime practice in the area, but is “generally on the increase given the larger population base in the region” and the financial payoff.
Some zealous shed hunters take the growing sport too far by disturbing elk mothers and calves, cutting fences to trespass or taking off-road vehicles into sensitive ecosystems when soils are wet and most vulnerable, the last of which is a major concern for the BLM. “Damage to plants and fragile soils can persist for years, especially given drought or extreme precipitation events that can accelerate erosion and set the system even further behind recovery,” Williams said.
Whether hunting for sheds or the bulls that dropped them or whether hunting for the culture, fun or meat, there’s no shortage of chances to experience elk in Northern New Mexico. At the end of the day, we can’t forget that their story is tied up with ours — of humans and our hand in shaping our shared environment.