(C) Jack Ballard
Idling up a chairlift at Red Lodge Mountain Resort, nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, I spy several sets of tracks in the snow under the lift that don’t appear they’ve been made by a hapless skier tromping through the thigh-deep snow to retrieve a dropped pole, glove or pair of goggles. Staring intently at the prints in the afternoon light, I’m surprised to recognize them as elk tracks. Closer scrutiny reveals a few piles of brown scat in the snow, the unmistakable marks of dragging furry bellies and several hoof-scraped areas where the animals have pawed through the crust to feed.
“That’s an elk, isn’t it?” she asks me.
Sure enough, what I’d taken earlier for a downed skier was a cow elk, her brown neck and chocolate back dusted in snow, frost freckling her cheeks and ears. For a moment she paws in the packed snow, then lowers her head to snatch a small mouthful of alpine grass, cured as thoroughly as the hay in the ranchers’ stacks down the valley. Of all of the obstacles I’ve dodged on a ski hill, I’ve never imagined potentially colliding with an elk.
Most informed students of nature understand that elk are migratory animals. At some point in the winter, the elk frequenting the ski runs will drift down into the foothills. What’s more poorly understood is the amount of snow these big, tough ungulates can tolerate. Two feet and counting, they’re still not ready to relinquish their alpine haunts for the wintering grounds. Looking for elk early in the winter? They’re probably much higher than you think.