March madness trims the herd
The yearling cow elk started showing up in the yard the first week of March, and at first nothing seemed wrong. During the day she fed along the back fence; as evening approached, she came in closer to the house, nibbling on the first green sprouts of lawn before bedding down under the ash trees.
This happened for a couple of days. The main herd was not far way, a mile or so down valley, but the chocolate brown and blond youngster seemed to have no interest in rejoining it.
“Maybe she got kicked out,” I said to my wife one evening as we ate dinner and watched our “pet” elk put its head down under the trees. She thought the animal was sick and called Kirk Madariaga, our local Division of Wildlife agent. Kirk said the young elk was likely starving to death, despite the green grass. Often the young elk and deer don’t have enough fat reserves to see them through the transition from dry winter forage to green forage. “It’s nature’s way of trimming the herd,” he said.
Nature’s way peaks in March, just as winter relinquishes its grip. That makes sense. March is a crazy transitional month, a time when life and death live side by side. It’s a time when the nation’s sports fans are gripped with do-or-die, nail-biting college basketball games, when floods and tornados lash out, and when the obituary pages of the local paper seem to fill with people who let go just before the tilting of the globe.
Here in western Colorado, March is when ranchers hope that Mother Nature will forego the late spring blizzards that can turn deadly for their calves, which, in just a few weeks, have grown from small freshly dropped huddles in the fields to exuberant, long-legged toddlers. It’s also the time when the birds return. Some have flown thousands of miles to reach their nesting grounds, on the promise that there will be something to eat when they arrive.
One spring a large flock of wood pewees descended on our town, driven down from the aspen trees by a late snowstorm. They perched quietly on windowsills, fences and shrubs, as docile and tame as caged canaries. The next day dozens of their almost weightless dead bodies littered the yards, victims of the weather and the neighborhood cats, which had never before seen — and probably never will again — the bird hunting so good.
Our little elk seemed to have a pretty substantial body, but Kirk told us to look for a hollowness in front of the hips. “If it’s there, then this elk is on its last legs, and there is really nothing you can do. “
The hollowness was there. I brought out a pan of oats and hay; the elk got up, and walked away only a few yards as I set the pan down. She didn’t touch the food, and lay down again. The next day she died, her head angled back at an odd angle, eyes glazed like milky ice. My son chained her hind legs to the 4–wheeler, and dragged her to the far corner of the field. Maybe the coyotes, eagles and magpies would gain some benefit from her carcass.
A couple of days later, I ventured up to take a look at the elk. On my way, I stumbled upon another body, this time a doe mule deer, nestled in the greening grass and the stiff brown stalks of last year’s chickory. She almost looked alive, except her eyes were gone, and a blood-smeared bone from one of her hind legs jutted through her fur. The sickly sweet smell of death wafted in the air.
So much death. And so much life. All around me, the clear and sweet song of western meadowlarks rang out, declaring their intention to produce new life in the grass. And far above, the faint bugling of sandhill cranes on the move, in March.