CDOT elk

A cow elk grazes on the Valley Floor not far from the Society Turn roundabout. Warmer, drier weather means elk are more active. (Photo by Suzanne Cheavens/Telluride Daily Planet)

Illuminated, it’s impossible to miss. The big, brightly lit billboard along U.S. Route 550 blares, “Wildlife on the move!”

To a driver, the signage feels in-your-face (and far better that than an ungulate through your window). 

The CDOT sign is illuminated every spring and fall south of Montrose, as elk and deer traverse back and forth, from the meadows and lowlands near the Uncompaghre River to the high alpine, in search of richer forage. 

Yet the sign recently lit up in January. Which prompted a question: what is happening with local wildlife right now? Might this winter’s warm temperatures and dry conditions have prompted their early migration? 

It was unusual to see the sign so soon.

“The general rule of thumb is, we put messages out about wildlife migrations around March,” confirmed Lisa Schwantes, CDOT’s Southwest Regional Communications Manager. 

But she added, “It also depends on what the weather is doing. When our road crew is out, they’ll request signage based on what they’re seeing. The weather and the temperature and the amount of snowfall on the ground really does play a role in an animal’s movements.”

Several different professionals could have triggered the illumination of highway signage. CDOT employees may phone in the operations center if they see a herd of elk near local roadways, for example. 

“We have this chain of communications not only for wildlife movements, but also for, say, our chain-law maintenance patrol members,” who may notice changing road conditions “and call in to our centers to let commercial drivers know they need to have chains on their vehicles,” Schwantes explained. “We also appreciate our boots on the ground, which is where law enforcement comes into in: highway patrol members who see an accident or impediment can also phone our operations center and change the text on our electronic boards.”

There are four CDOT operations centers in Colorado, including one in Golden, which controls signage on the Front Range; in Pueblo, which is responsible for roadside warnings in the southern part of the state; and at the Eisenhower Tunnel. The fourth center at Hanging Lake Tunnels, in Glenwood Springs, is responsible for signage on the Western Slope. (“It’s kind of hard to believe that CDOT employees call Glenwood” in order to illuminate roadside signs in Ridgway, say, or southwest in Durango, where she works, Schwantes noted wryly.)

As for whether or not the “Wildlife on the Move” billboard along 550 might have been a warning regarding ungulates’ early seasonal movements to the high country, the answer is no, Colorado Parks & Wildlife biologist Alyssa Kircher said. Deer and elk “are not necessarily migrating right now” — that begins a few weeks later. 

“But since it’s been so warm, they’re more active right now, because they can be.” 

Hundreds of elk winter between Montrose and Telluride, Kircher said. One herd resides near the hayfields across the road from the Uncompaghre River on 550 between Montrose and Ridgway; another lives in the highlands along the Dallas Divide. In both cases, “the highway happens to be going right through their winter range.” Humans place corridors along rivers, in other words, where many centuries before, wildlife has already located (everybody’s after the same thing: access to water).

The elk and deer outside Colona, south of Montrose, “are going over to the river, or back from the river” several times each day, Kircher said. “They bed down in the cottonwoods. They like to be down by the river bottom at night.” By day, “they like the open meadows and the sagebrush fields on the other side of the road to graze in.” 

Along the Dallas Divide, “There’s also a pretty solid elk herd that hangs out along the highway. That’s the lowest elevation those elk have to go to. They’re back and forth between the aspen groves and the river. There’s nothing out of the ordinary” with elk, or deer, when it comes to their seasonal movements, Kircher summed up. As for that sign along 550: an alert CDOT employee may simply have spotted elk, which tend to move slowly, and en masse — and can do more damage than deer when it comes to animal-vehicle collisions — and illuminated the billboard as a warning to other motorists.  

 “Our highways unfortunately go through a lot of winter range, and that’s where animals are living,” Kircher said. “It’s dangerous for you and for them.”