In an effort to help ranches co-exist with large populations of elk, the Colorado Division of Wildlife has issued firecrackers to some landowners to scare away herds.
Elk, in large numbers, have the ability to destroy crops and eat food that otherwise is intended for cows, costing ranchers and farmers thousands of dollars every year.
"We love to see them, but we can't afford to feed them," said Tim Karl, who has 200 head of red Angus on his Pine River Ranch north of Bayfield.
The firecrackers are a hazing tactic used to scare away the elk. They look like shotgun shells and are fired from a special handgun or a shotgun. The rounds make a loud crackling noise in the air. They are fired whenever elk are caught feasting on a rancher's property, including during the middle of the night, which has upset some neighbors.
Animas Valley resident Dave Sime said the crackers don't accomplish much, other than disrupt the peace and quiet at random hours of the day. Once the firecrackers are shot, the elk move to a neighbor's pasture to feed, he said.
"This happens at any time, day or night," Sime said of the firecrackers. "You feel like you're in Gaza or something when in the middle of the night you hear gunfire and explosions."
The Division of Wildlife has issued firecrackers to ranchers for decades, said DOW area wildlife manager Patt Dorsey. Firecrackers are one of many hazing tactics used to scare away wildlife.
But elk are smart creatures and will become desensitized to
the crackers, she said, so they provide only temporary relief to the ranchers. More permanent solutions include fencing off haystacks or an entire property.
"For the most part, what we're trying to do is eliminate conflict," Dorsey said. "These are a good short-term solution; they're not a good long-term solution."
In some cases, the DOW will issue dispersal hunting permits, which allow ranchers to shoot a certain number of elk out-of-season to send a message to the herd. Only about seven ranchers have been approved to conduct dispersal hunts this winter in La Plata County, Dorsey said. And such permits aren't given out until other hazing tactics have been tried and failed.
In accordance with the law, the DOW is responsible for damage or financial losses resulting to ranches by wildlife. Last year, the DOW paid out $960,000 for game damage in the state. More than half of that - $450,000 - was because of elk, said Joe Lewandowski, local spokesman for the DOW.
"This is not exclusive to Durango," Lewandowski said. "This goes on everywhere in Colorado where you've got elk populations that are large and very attractive fields where they are grazing cattle."
In addition to appeasing ranchers, the DOW wants to limit conflicts between humans and wildlife.
While a gathering of elk might be a pretty sight during the day in the north Animas Valley, at night the animals can dart across the highway, resulting in tragedy for a family, Dorsey said.
Karl, the Bayfield rancher, said an elk can eat three times the amount as one of his cows. And once they get a taste for a free meal, it is hard to force elk to migrate as they're supposed to.
To make matters worse, Karl has to put salt and minerals out for his cows, which "is kind of like throwing a bunch of lollypops out for a bunch of kids," he said.
"I'm sure it disturbs some people when we try to move them, but I guess that's them looking outside in," Karl said.
"I enjoy seeing them; I just wish they were in the habitat that they're supposed to be in this time of the year - or year-round," he said.