ELK GONE MILD: A Horse & Elk Story of Interspecies Relationships

By Scott A. Rowan

Sharing with others is a noble practice, but when your neighbor is a nomadic bull elk small acts can produce some unusual moments.

Estes Park, Colorado, is known by millions of outdoors enthusiasts as the home of elk, where the animals can outnumber the residents in the winter. As the eastern entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park provides plenty of moments for unexpected interactions with the wildlife.

Disposing of your food inappropriately can easily lead to a bear visit during the night. Though the simple act of irresponsible trash disposal was done out of ignorance, not malice, the end result can be lethal for both human and four-legged animal(s). The encroachment of wild animals into close human proximity is often caused by inadvertent human actions that could easily have been avoided: bears climbing on porches to drink hummingbird feeders, bears breaking through garage doors to eat bulk containers of bird seed and/or compostable trash that wasn’t placed in bear-proof containers.

During my tenure as editor of the Estes Park Trail-Gazette I witnessed several incidents where wildlife overtook human activity and though no humans were hurt in the exchanges, there was always a post-incident acknowledgment by those involved that everyone was fortunate the encounter didn’t result in injury or lethal exchange. Considering these animals are wild, I don’t want to encourage human interaction with any animals, but viewed with respect from a safe distance, a private exchange with wildlife will often improve and enhance a person’s love of nature, not diminish it.

The horse can be seen to the left of the photo, avoiding the bull elk. Credit to author.

With that in mind, I wanted to share these photos of an unexpected (and prolonged) interaction with a few bull elk and a local horse.

In other articles I’ve revealed some of the best areas to view elk when visiting Estes Park, and on my daily commute to work each day, I passed a small, private ranch along the road. In the pens were a couple of horses, who would graze on hay, ignoring the traffic moving past along Highway 43.

Working in a newsroom forced me to have unusual hours, often going in hours before dawn. Even when I was running late, I learned to not speed along that stretch of town due to the number of elk I experienced daily. Sometimes they decided to congregate in the middle of the road in numbers so dense it would appear as if I had driven into a fur-lined carwash.

But one encounter between a couple of bull elk and a local horse caught my attention.

During rut season, the 100-Head Herd near MacGregor Ranch overtake the region. Experts in Rocky Mountain National Park told me on several occasions that they consider the elk in Estes Park to be different than other elk herds, less afraid of human interaction. The casual, aloof, regal posture that the cows and bulls display when crossing the road, walking through yards, or sauntering through town is not the same easy-going demeanor a hiker would encounter on a trail or in a limited area. The only negative aspect of the life-changing experience that encountering the elk in Estes Park holds is that it can lead to an incorrect assumption that all elk are as non-threatening as those found in the Estes Valley. That is not true. Elk can cause serious damage to each other and to humans.

Even though the elk in Estes may be non-threatening, even the biggest of domesticated animals gives them their space.

Over the course of several days, I watched how one bull elk discovered a local rancher’s hay supply for his horse. The first day, when the hay was stacked high enough that it was over the head of the horse, both the horse and the elk ate from the pile, although from opposite sides of the stack and on the opposite of the fence.

The horse stall is close to the road, forcing the bull elk poachers to be even closer to the road. Credit to author.

Positioned in the corner of the horse stall, the stack was initially tall enough that the horse didn’t know that he was sharing his hay with the wild bull elk. However, by the following day, as the stack lowered enough to reveal that the elk was also eating from the same pile but on the other side of the steel fence and the other side of the pile, the horse wasn’t seen eating again.

That’s when I began to take notice. I drove past the pile multiple times each day in my normal commute and never saw the horse eating from the stack when the elk was there. Which was a problem that I couldn’t help but chuckle about because not only did the bull elk not leave, he appeared to invite friends.

Two bull elks cooperate while feeding on the haystack of an unfortunate horse forced to share. Credit to author.

By the third day, there were at least two bull elk eating the hay pile and the horse wasn’t even in the pen, staying inside his covered stall. (I had no way of differentiating the different bull elk from each other so for all I know there were dozens sharing this easy meal, not just two.)

This behavior was only on display during rut season, which leads me to believe the calm way the elk took “ownership” of the hay in a mild show of force was due to the annual ritual. I’m sure the elk were always aware of the easy-access pile of hay, but didn’t partake until rut season. I passed the same horse stall thousands of times, but never in this shared manner between horse and elk until rut season.

Regardless, I would urge any visitors to Estes Park and/or Rocky Mountain National Park to slow down when driving along Highway 43 particularly near St. Bartholomew Episcopal Church and The Black Canyon Inn. If not to view the animals traipsing through year-round, but to save yourself from having a potentially lethal collision with an elk.


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