One day last July, motorists along Colorado Highway 13 north of Rio Blanco saw what’s become a familiar sight: a herd of cow elk, fresh from calving grounds in the Piceance Basin, crossing the highway on its way to summer range to the east. This time, however, it was different.
Two cows had made it across the fence lining the west side of the newly rebuilt section of highway but had left behind their two, month-old calves, who were too small to jump the tight-strung fence.
“Every year cows with their young calves move down from the calving grounds and hit that woven wire fence, but the calves can’t get across,” says Bill deVergie, Meeker area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. It wasn’t long before both cows, who refused to leave their calves, were killed by traffic.
“The two calves were still nursing, and there wasn’t another cow to pick them up,” he says. “So I guess they died, too.”
That particular trouble spot is just north of Rio Blanco, where the Colorado Department of Transportation is improving Highway 13 from the Wyoming line south. A 2.6-mile stretch of road starting about 20 miles north of Rifle now is being worked on, and part of the work involves replacing aged fence.
Fences, either woven wire with two overtopping strands of barbed wire, or a regular four-strand barbed, are replaced at the request of the adjacent landowner, deVergie says. CDOT often builds escape ramps along similar trouble spots, such as the stretch of Highway 13 near Ridgway State Park. But so far, no ramps have been built along the newest section of Highway 13.
In this case, the rancher wanted woven wire because of his sheep, and cooperated with CPW by leaving his gate open to allow elk passage. “But the property below his doesn’t open his gates, so we run into these places where the elk don’t cross,” deVergie says. “If we could make a deal with that landowner, we could alleviate 80 percent of our problems.”
Rob Raley of Meeker regularly drives Highway 13. “Everyday I see those elk and part of the cows are leaving and the calves are staying,” he says. “This morning there was a yearling (cow) and calf running back and forth. It’s a mess.”
The problem has developed in the four years since roadwork began, probably because the new fences block animals more than the older, less-maintained fences. The new fences are tight and don’t have the “give” of the old ones.
“You’ll see a cow (elk) walk up to the new fence, hit it with its head or rub against it to see if it has any give, and then take two or three steps back and jump over,” deVergie says. “A month-old calf can’t do that.”
Elk need the cooperation of CPW, CDOT and landowners, says Raley, who formerly raised elk on a ranch near Yampa. Leaving gates open on only one side of the road confuses them, he says. “Once they go through the gate and hit the other fence, they don’t know which way to go,” he says, adding that it leaves them without an escape route, trapped between the fence and traffic.
Once the elk move through to their summer range, the problem passes. And in the fall, the calves are big enough to jump. The goal, says DeVergie, is to figure out how to prevent similar problems from occurring elsewhere.
“We’re communicating a lot better with CDOT now,” he says. “But we’re having the same problem every year since they built that fence. My first concern is the safety for people. If we can save an elk or two, that’s even better.”
Fence FactsFence Facts
Researchers at Utah State University recently completed a study of wildlife mortality along more than 600 miles of fences in the rangelands of northeastern Utah and northwestern Colorado. By repeatedly driving and walking fence lines over two seasons, they tallied the number of mule deer, pronghorn and elk carcasses they found caught in and lying next to fences, as well as the fence types caused the most problems. Among their findings:
• On average, one ungulate per year was found tangled
for every 2.5 miles of fence.
• Most animals (69 percent of juveniles and 77 percent of adults) died by getting caught in the top two wires while trying to jump.
• Juveniles are eight times more likely to die in fences
• Mortalities peaked during August, when fawns are
• Woven-wire fence topped with a single strand of
barbed-wire was the most lethal fence type; ungulates’
legs are easily snared and tangled between the barbed-wire and rigid woven-wire.
• 70 percent of all mortalities were on fences higher than 40”.
• On average, one ungulate was found dead next to,
but not in, fences every 1.2 miles of fence; most were
found next to woven-wire fence.
• 90 percent of carcasses found near fences were fawns—
separated from their mothers and unable to cross.
– Courtesy, Colorado Parks and Wildlife.