LARIMER COUNTY, Colo. (KDVR) — The Cameron Peak Fire burned 208,913 acres from Aug. to Dec. in Larimer County, but it does not appear that the fire is impacting elk herds.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist Angelique Curtis took flight in a Bell 407 helicopter to survey the elk herds for the first time since the fire earlier this week. She classified roughly 4,200 elk in the seven hour flight on Thursday, Jan. 7.
The Cameron Peak Fire is the largest ever to burn in Colorado.
CPW said Curtis used satellite GPS collars as a part of a new study launched one year ago to help locate the herds across the Laramie River Valley, Red Feather Lakes and the Cherokee State Wildlife Area.
“The elk that we saw today actually summered up where the Cameron Peak Fire burned in the Comanche Peak Wilderness, Long Draw area and up in Dead Man,” Curtis said. “What we saw today is that the fire didn’t inhibit them from actually getting to their wintering ground and we saw some pretty good calf recruitment. We did see healthy animals on the ground, so the fire didn’t seem to affect them health wise.” shared Curtis.
CPW said depending on how hot the fire burned across the region, there is still a chance for a productive wildlife habitat to form by spring. Another factor that will contribute to the productive habitat will be moisture in the area over the winter.
Curtis saw thousands of elk while surveying the area of the fire, which made it difficult to record their sex and age class, according to CPW.
“In order for us to properly classify them, the pilot has to go in there and actually carve off a group of 35 to 40 elk at a time and then his job is to keep those elk separated from the main herd,” Curtis said. “So when we are doing this it is definitely the pilot and his skills that get us the data we need.”
“A lot of animal welfare goes into it,” said Cameron Stallings, Chief Pilot from Aero Tech, Inc. “You don’t want to run them through fences or over cliffs or run them too long, things like that. Flying in the mountains when it is windy is difficult and there are things you have to consider there.”
CPW said the last time biologists surveyed this herd from the sky was in 2006.
“The purpose of these flights is to get a classification,” Curtis said. “Classification is the cow, calf and bulls that we see on the ground and that is entered into a model and then from there we use the model to produce population estimates and to decide how many licenses we need to give out each year.”
CPW said it was Larimer County HPP funds that paid for the GPS satellite collars for this elk study. Funds from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation were used towards the aerial capture efforts to get the collars deployed on the elk.
Potential long term effects from the fire are not yet known. It is a good sign the elk were able to make it down to their wintering grounds, but biologists are curious what next summer will bring for the herds, according to CPW.
“It is going to be interesting to see when they migrate back to their summer range, how that is going to affect their movement patterns and if they are going to go to the same locations as they did the previous year,” Curtis said.