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Fourth Elk Festival Draws Visitors to Valles Caldera

SANTA FE, N.M. — This month, the Valles Caldera National Preserve is honoring a natural resource that comes in herds.

The Fourth Annual Jemez Mountains Elk Festival started Saturday and will run through Oct. 14. Visitors can learn about the once-threatened animal and how people have used elk through the ages, as well as get an introduction to other inhabitants of the ancient volcanic basin.

The Valles Caldera is home to 4,000 to 5,000 elk, making it the second-most populous area for elk in the state, behind Chama, according to environmental interpreter Jim Trout.

What: Fourth Annual Jemez Mountains Elk Festival
Where: Valles Caldera National Preserve
When: Through Oct. 14, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
How much: 45-minute shuttle ride in the caldera for $3; and a two-hour hiking shuttle trip for $8
More information: 866-382-5537 or http://www.vallescaldera.gov/calendar/ViewCal.html

The herd is happy and healthy living off the many different plants in the Caldera, he said, but it wasn’t always that way. The native elk, which from N.M. 4 look like ants moving through the huge caldera, were wiped out around 1900 due to factors such as poaching. The elk’s front “whistler” teeth – information at the preserve suggests they could be the evolutionary remnants of tusks used in combat – were highly prized by hunters.

The elk we see today, according to Trout, were reintroduced in 1948 from Yellowstone National Park. Today, about 226 permits for elk hunting help fund operations at the preserve. Passes for 2012 are sold out; entry for the 2013 lottery will start in mid-November. Organizations such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation support the elk through fundraising and projects such as taking down old wire fences where elk graze.

“We want these majestic, beautiful animals to be available for our children and grandchildren,” said Bill Britton of the foundation’s Albuquerque chapter.

Shuttle tours were available to get people closer to the elk, but another environmental interpreter, Carmen Blumberg, was showing people what they could learn from what animals leave behind. Those leavings in her display ran the gamut: distinctive lumps of chewed wood that beavers leave at the base of trees, thin spine-like slivers of pine cones left behind by hungry squirrels, and more than a couple boxes of scat left by predators. These were in varying states of age, with one photograph of bobcat scat tagged with a label you might find in a supermarket: “Fresh!”

Some people might say, “‘Scat? That’s gross!’ but you really find out about what’s been here,” Blumberg said.

By reading these signs, Blumberg said, an alert outdoors person can be aware of what type of critters are moving through the Caldera, what they eat and how they live.

So something like an owl pellet, which contains all of the indigestible hair and bone of its prey, can give a history of that bird.

Some of the predatory birds native to the Valles Caldera made an appearance Saturday from The Santa Fe Raptor Center, which rescues orphaned or injured birds, patches them up and sends them on their way. A few, such as the screech and great horned owls and the kestrel, couldn’t be released back into the wild. Laura and Blair Swartz said these three birds live at the center.

Laura Swartz said the great horned owl, for example, often acts as a role model for orphaned owlets, who imprint on the larger adult.

Swartz was taking donations for the birds, commenting that they eat a lot.

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