Harrowing helicopter ride offers glimpse of Cameron Peak Fire’s impact on elk herd

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Flying above thousands of elk with the massive Cameron Peak Fire burn scar visible in the distance, pilot Cameron Stallings dipped the Bell 407 helicopter down exhilaratingly close to a string of elk running over the windswept snow-dappled mountain plateau.

The pilot lowered closer, and a group of around 40 elk veered to the left of the main herd as Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist Angelique Curtis leaned into the window.  

“A cow, a spike, a cow, a bull, a bull,” she rattled off, identifying the elk into a recorder while the helicopter’s plodding kept pace with the elk’s sprinting.  “A cow, a four-point, a spike, 10 cows, a calf, a cow.”

In less than 5 minutes, Curtis identified all the elk by sex and age in the separated group, and Stallings veered away as the elk headed into trees. Curtis said the surveys during what can be a difficult time of the year for elk is stressful but that the work is critical for the overall health of the herd and is done as quickly as possible to reduce impact.

“It’s dangerous work because you get really close to the ground so you have to trust your pilot,” said Curtis, who works out of the Fort Collins office. “We’re all about safety because there are a lot of hazards for the elk as well as for us.”

For the elk, those hazards are running through fences and breaking a leg, veering off a cliff and dying, or fleeing across a road and being hit by a vehicle. For Curtis and Stallings, the hazards are trees, power lines and tricky winds that can produce similar consequences.

That’s why before dipping in low, the pair surveys the landscape from afar once the elk are found to ensure the elk, pilot and biologist all have ample room to operate.

Curtis said the risk is worth the reward.

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Colorado Parks and Wildlife generally does aerial winter surveys of elk to determine sex, age and numbers of animals and to assess the health of the population. The information plays into how many hunting licenses will be offered to manage the herd.

The seven-hour flight on Jan. 7 was significant because the survey of the elk herd northwest of Fort Collins, identified as E-4, was the first aerial winter survey since 2006. It also came months after the nearly 209,000-acre Cameron Peak Fire forced the elk off their summer range.

Curtis said despite the fire burning 98% of the elk herd’s summer range in the Comanche Peak Wilderness, Long Draw and Deadman area in western Larimer County, the elk weathered the fire quite well. She said the several-thousand elk herd’s winter range was largely untouched by the fire.

“There was good recruitment, healthy calves, none of them looked thin, and the health of heard looked very robust,” she said.

The big question now is how the herd will fare later, when they instinctively return to their calving grounds in their spring and summer range.

As fortune would have it, Curtis will be able to closely monitor the herd to document movement patterns, habitat use, reproduction success and mortality causes. Last year, she fitted 30 cow elk with satellite GPS collars as part of a study to help locate the herds across their winter range, stretching from the Laramie River Valley to the Red Feather Lakes and Cherokee State Wildlife Area in northern Larimer County. 

Curtis said surveys have not been done for so long because the elk were difficult to find over such a large expanse without the collars.

“I call the collared cows (female elk) Judas elk because they are taking us to the herd,” Curtis said.

She said it will take several years of such surveys to build a model that accurately captures how many elk are in the area and where and how they move through it and what impact the fire might have on the herd.

She said the elk’s summer range is a mosaic, with some areas untouched, some slightly burned and others “annihilated.” She expects the elk will need to find other calving grounds, which could cause short-term issues, but that the regeneration of the vegetation in the burn area will eventually increase the number of calves.

She expects the elk this spring to follow the “green wave” of vegetation, some enhanced by the fire, stopping for longer periods where the eating is good and moving quickly through severely burned areas to the next good food source.

“They are intuitively smart, but it will be interesting to see how the elk integrate back into the burn area,” she said. “This will help us identify things we can do such as habitat improvement to keep the elk population stable.”

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Reporter Miles Blumhardt looks for stories that impact your life. Be it news, outdoors, sports — you name it, he wants to report it. Have a story idea? Contact him at milesblumhardt@coloradoan.com or on Twitter @MilesBlumhardt. Support his work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.