The snow has melted and the temperatures are warming. Spring is in the air, and it is a perfect day for a hike in the local county parks around Nederland. But you better go to Mud Lake, because a drive up to Caribou Ranch County Park and Open Space leads to a closed gate.
“Closed — until July 1”
Visitors to Nederland are often surprised by the county park being closed. But every year, like clockwork, the park closes March 31 and doesn’t re-open until July. It’s got nothing to do with visitors — that is the human kind. But it has everything to do with another resident of the area — the 4-legged kind.
Caribou Ranch is home to a rather large herd of elk. Elk, like many of their hoofed neighbors, mate in the fall. One of the great spectacles in Rocky Mountain National Park is the elk rut. Bugling, bulls facing off against each other, antlers tangling make it a sight to see.
The result of the elk rut is a lot of pregnant cow elk. Elk, much like humans, have a lengthy gestation period that can last eight to eight and half months. The calves are born mid-May to mid-June and will weigh around 35 pounds when born. A cow elk usually gives birth to one calf, but sometimes two.
Those first few weeks are critical for the babies as they are vulnerable to predators during those first few weeks. But certain adaptations will help them with survival. Spots and a lack of scent protect them from preying wildlife. They will also remain motionless in one place to avoid detection, depending on their mothers to nurse them. In 2-3 weeks, the elk and mother will re-join the rest of the herd, providing safety in numbers.
The calves will grow fast, getting both milk from the cow and eating grass. At around six months, an elk calf will be as big as a mule deer and all their spots will be gone. They calves will continue to stay with their mothers and the rest of the cow elk until they are one year old. By the next summer they will separate from the herd and mate in the fall.
Because of their vulnerability during the cow’s pregnancy and in the weeks after giving birth, Boulder County Parks and Open Space decided it would be best to close the park until the calves are stronger and bigger. Given that often Nederland’s biggest snowstorms can be in April and even early May, this is perhaps, not the greatest hardship.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we share our love of the mountains and its habitats with a whole host of other living things. For now, us humans will just have to wait for wildflowers and hiking until July. But it might just be worth it if you get a glimpse of a baby elk grazing wildflowers in the meadow.