LARIMER COUNTY, Colorado (CBS4) – Wildlife Managers investigate the movements of thousands of moose that not only survived last year’s massive Cameron Peak Fire, but continue to thrive. The devastating fire that burned 112 days in the western part of the county in 2020 was the largest in the state’s history at 208,913 acres.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife employees who use GPS collars to track members of the herd say that as the fire spread, the animals were forced to lower elevations, but to locations they would eventually have migrated. They just made the trip earlier than normal.
On January 7, CPW biologist Angelique Curtis scanned the elk from above and counted the animals in the first aerial photo of the herd since the fire. The first aerial photo since 2006.
“Talk about the stress and fear of flying! Your whole reason to be up there is to find and classify these animals. So when the time goes by you just like that, where are the animals? You should be here! Then when you see her it’s just bliss.
You get a surge of energy going through you and it’s just amazing to see them in the distance, ”said Curtis.
Curtis and helicopter pilot Cameron Stallings classified around 4,200 moose.
“The moose we saw today actually accumulated where the Cameron Peak Fire burned in the Comanche Peak Wilderness, the Long Draw area, and Dead Man,” Curtis said shortly after landing. “What we saw today is that the fire didn’t stop them from actually getting to their wintering area. We saw healthy animals, so the fire didn’t seem to affect their health. “
Pilot Stallings pushed down quickly and strategically, removing about three dozen animals from the herd at a time.
“There’s a lot of animal welfare involved,” said Stallings, chief pilot for Aero Tech, Inc. “You don’t want to let them run through fences or cliffs or let them run too long, things like that.”
“It is definitely the pilot and his skills that give us the data we need,” added Curtis.
The Cameron Peak Fire began on August 13, 2020 and immediately ran downhill towards Chambers Lake, resulting in immediate evacuations. It wasn’t included until early December. It became the largest fire in Colorado history.
A large part of this burned area is the summer habitat of this herd of elk called E-4.
The long-term effects on the herd will depend largely on the amount of moisture the cremation area receives this winter and spring. Managers like Curtis are excited to see the herd return to the same backcountry domain in 2021.
Additional collars and monitoring will create a database in which researchers can document movement patterns, habitat use, reproductive success and causes of death. A management model is created from this – something that CPW has lacked for this herd.
“This is the first year of data and I will probably need another three or four years of data to get the model right, but it does give me an idea of how many moose are in the landscape and how the moose are moving through the countryside, ”said Curtis.
There will also be more precise population numbers for CPW to consider when issuing permits for the fall hunting season.
If you live near the fire area and see wildlife such as bighorn sheep or elk, CPW wants to know. Curtis says it will be helpful for them to know when these animals are moving, where they are going, and how they are moving through the burned areas.
Funding for the study comes from the Larimer County Habitat Partnership Program and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.