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Elk have Salt Lake City in a tizzy. Here’s why they’re here

UDOT traffic sign, watch out for wildlife, I-80 Salt Lake City, Feb. 4, 2023
Jim Hill
An electronic sign warns drivers on Esat Parleys Way approaching the I-80 and I-215 interchange to slow down and watch out for wildlife, Feb. 4, 2023. A herd of elk has periodically attempted to cross I-80 near the interchange, resulting in slowed traffic and a few collisions.

It's not something you see every day, a herd of elk trotting across I-80 during morning traffic. In the past several weeks, wildlife and public safety officials have had their hands full near Parley's Canyon in Salt Lake County.

So, are these ungulates moving here like everyone else? Not quite. You can point to the deep mountain snowpack that has skiers excited as the main factor bringing them in.

"They're grazers, and you can always see them every year. They're used to some deep snow, but this year [the snow] has been particularly deep," said Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Outreach Director Scott Root.

And it's not just elk, DWR has also received reports of moose and cougars making frequent appearances in neighborhoods and in the valleys.

Glenn Merrill, the service hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City, said it’s been more than a decade since Utah has seen a winter come close to the current depth or robustness of the snowpack.

"On a statewide average, and especially along here on the Wasatch Front, you know, with the urban wildland interface, we're seeing snowpack numbers anywhere between 170% and 190% of median for this time of year of normal values."

And there are roughly two more months of winter left.

An elk’s diet can vary, but it consists of grasses, forbs and shrubs. The percentage of each food type also varies based on availability. With a deep snowpack, the animals have a hard time getting to the vegetation and are forced to wander into lower elevations. This is risky for them and the people they encounter.

"There's more danger when they start coming into our neighborhoods because there's so much vehicle traffic and there's dogs and there's things that they could get injured on, you know, construction sites and you name it,” Root said. “So we don't like them down here in town."

Seven elk have been killed in traffic-related accidents since the beginning of February, including three crossing I-80 last Friday, said DWR Public Information Officer Faith Jolley. And 19 elk were found dead in Mapleton on Jan. 27, 2023. Wildlife officials believe a toxic yew plant may be to blame.

"So they start getting into some of these plants they're not used to consuming, and that can cause problems," Root said.

Aside from this winter’s deep snowpack, the weather overall just hasn’t been that favorable for wildlife over the past three years.

"If you go back to 2019, that was the last year where we had a pretty good winter, pretty good water supply year, and then we entered an exceptional drought,” Merrill said. “They've just been impacted by a drought, a significant drought for many years. And now we've got this anomalously deep, really big fat snowpack up there and man, they can't catch a break."

Wildlife and public safety officials are hopeful with warmer weather on the horizon they will be able to push the wildlife back into the mountains to find more natural food sources. But there's no guarantee they won't come back down.

According to the Utah Division of Water Resources, the state’s snowpack typically peaks around April, with a 30-year median of 15.8 inches. Merrill notes with a higher sun angle, there could be some relief for wildlife getting back to their natural habitat.

"So when we do enter those warmer periods, we might melt off a little bit down low. So, you know, to help the wildlife out a little bit. But again, you know, snow is something that we really need for our water supply. And it seems like lately, it's just feast or famine."

Until then, the elk are most likely not going away which is why the DWR is asking drivers to remain vigilant and watch for wildlife on the roads.

Curtis Booker is KUER’s growth, wealth and poverty reporter in Central Utah.
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