by Sandra AvantThis sidebar appeared in the Spring 1997 issue of New Mexico Resources, as an adjunct to the article "Wild New Mexico".
"Wapiti" - a Shawnee Indian word meaning "white deer" - refers to the bleached spring coats of elk. Once the most widely spread members of the deer family in North America, elk disappeared from the eastern United States by the early 1800s, while herds shrank to a mere 1,900 in the West.
Back then, elk were wiped out by market and subsistence hunting, says V.W. Howard, NMSU professor of fishery and wildlife sciences. Railroads were being built and hunters were contracted to find meat to feed workers.
Today, elk, the second largest member of the deer family after the moose, are found mainly in the western United States and Canada. Wildlife experts hesitate to speculate on New Mexico's elk population, but believe herds have grown three-fold over the last 30 years.
Most of the population are Rocky Mountain elk that live in the mountain ranges, Howard says. Gila National Forest is home to the largest herd. Other sizable herds graze in the Pecos wilderness of Santa Fe National Forest, and Lincoln National Forest where they were introduced by the Mescalero Apaches in the mid-1960s.
Many New Mexico ranchers receive additional income from their fee hunting operations, says Jon Boren, wildlife specialist with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. Depending on the services provided, ranchers may garner $200 to $2,500 per hunter.
"The coolness and high vegetation attract elk to the mountains," Howard says. "However, many of them are now making their way back down to the plains."
Growing numbers of elk are increasingly causing damage to private property, says Steve Wamel, governmental affairs director with New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau. Complaints from landowners range from elk eating young apple trees and tearing off branches of older ones to destroying fences and laying on alfalfa fields.
The New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association and New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau are seeking help from Extension's Range Improvement Task Force (RITF) to find solutions to this problem.
Task force members are looking at three projects, says John Fowler, RITF coordinator. With assistance from the U.S. Forest Service and the private sector, RITF is developing a pilot program for animal census to determine the state's elk population and pinpoint its location. Also, elk and livestock exclosures have been set up in Lincoln National Forest to see how elk interact and compete with livestock. A third effort involves gathering information on elk habitat in the Gila mountains.
"We're looking at this as a comprehensive program," Fowler says. "This can't be a shotgun approach. We want to be able to make informative, educational, and managerial suggestions about elk, which means monitoring habitat along with wildlife."
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