A young elk caught behind a fence for days has prompted one Durango woman to raise awareness about the lack of rehabilitation facilities in Southwest Colorado and the risk that fencing poses to wildlife.
Christine Raap noticed the young elk around July 1 trapped by mesh fencing with barbed wire along County Road 220 south of Durango.
Raap had previously observed an elk herd moving through the area, and she saw what she assumed was the elk’s mother the first day. The young elk could not keep up with the herd because of the fence, and Raap has not seen the mother since, she said.
“If it was old enough, it probably would be big enough to jump the fence, but it’s just not because it was just born,” Raap said.
Over the past few days, the animal has languished behind the fence, no longer trotting but walking and lying down in the shade of bushes along the road, she said.
Raap reported the elk to Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Colorado State Patrol, and called her veterinarian and rehabilitation facilities in Southwest Colorado, but she has not found any solutions or help for the calf.
“I’m really upset about it. I wish there was something easier that could be done,” she said. “I’ve been on the phone dealing with this trying to help this creature and it just can’t be done.”
After Raap’s calls and others from her friends, a CPW wildlife officer assessed the situation but the agency did not take further action.
“Our folks did take the call, and it’s understandable for the person who reported it. You see an animal stuck in that situation and there’s that natural instinct to want to help it,” said John Livingston, spokesman for CPW’s Southwest region. “But as always our line is to leave wildlife alone, especially young wildlife. They are more resilient than maybe our human minds give them credit for.”
The agency sees a number of cases this time of year where mothers and their calves get stuck in similar situations.
In most cases, the animals find their way out and, though difficult to watch, it simply takes time. There are also a number of risks, such as cutting a fence and releasing a frightened animal into a road, that complicate helping them, Livingston said.
“The reason these kinds of decisions are made is because typically what’s best for the animal in those situations is just to let them and mom work it out together,” he said.
Though Raap has not seen the young elk’s mother in days, Livingston said that mothers are usually not far away from their calves, and they are often off looking for an opening where their young can get out.
Raap spoke to a rehabilitation facility in Montrose that was willing to take on the animal, but she has no means, and would potentially face fines, to capture and transport the animal to the facility.
Southwest Colorado has just three CPW-licensed wildlife rehabilitation centers, two of which care only for birds.
Roubideau Rim Wildlife Rescue in Montrose is the only rescue that cares for mammals.
CPW has its own rehabilitation facility in Del Norte, but the center works mostly with bears and raptors, Livingston said.
“We don’t do ungulate (deer, elk and moose) rehab down here in the Southwest, and we can’t really transfer that animal to any other rehab facility in the state because you can’t mix herds with the risk of disease spread,” he said.
Some diseases like chronic wasting disease have yet to impact herds in Southwest Colorado the way they have affected herds in other parts of the state.
Raap hopes the episode with the young elk highlights the need for more rehabilitation support in Southwest Colorado.
“We don’t have a facility in this area, so it’d be nice to have one,” she said.
With her unsuccessful efforts to help the calf, Raap’s goal is also to raise awareness of the risk that fencing poses.
“People raise up fences all over the place and that’s all fine and dandy, but they don’t seem to realize that they’re really affecting the wildlife in a major way,” she said.
The mesh fencing with barbed wire at the top that the young elk has been struggling to pass through is particularly challenging for wildlife, Livingston said.
According to CPW’s “Fencing with Wildlife in Mind” pamphlet, juvenile animals are eight times as likely to die from fences as adults, with deaths peaking during August when mothers wean their fawns. Research by scientists at Utah State University showed that woven-wire fencing topped with a single strand of barbed wire was the most lethal type of fencing.
“Fencing is always an issue for wildlife whether it’s disrupting traditional migration corridors or you see some rough situations sometimes where even adult deer get caught up on a fence and gore themselves to death,” Livingston said.
The ideal fence for wildlife is highly visible with a smooth wire on top and bottom and at least 16 inches between the bottom wire and the ground so animals can move underneath, according to CPW’s pamphlet. It is no taller than 42 inches but lower on sloped terrain where it is more difficult to jump over.
Electric fences and lower sections of fence that can act as outlets also help wildlife, according to CPW’s pamphlet.
But without any immediate course for action, Raap expressed frustration with the plight of the young elk.
“I’ve been on the phone more or less all day trying to figure something out for this guy and pretty much there’s nothing that can be done,” Raap said Tuesday. “I just think that’s a really bad answer.”