Elk Migratory Behavior
Most elk utilize different areas during summer and winter and spend variable amounts of time transitioning between the two areas during the spring and fall. Thus, biologists refer to three major types of ungulate use areas: summer, transition, and winter range. Summer range typically includes the highest elevation elk habitats, transition range encompasses mid-elevation habitats, and winter range encompasses the lowest elevations. As with anything, there are exceptions to the rules. Elk habitat use and migratory behavior is heavily driven by weather. In mild years, some elk will remain at high elevations late into the fall and may spend winter at higher elevations on south-facing slopes that remain largely free of snow. In years with severe fall or winter weather, nearly all elk will migrate down to low elevations to seek forage and escape deep snow.
Migratory behavior is an important concept for hunters. Generally speaking, most elk will be at higher elevations (i.e., summer range) during archery and muzzleloader seasons and usually first rifle season in Colorado. In mild years, elk will remain at high elevations throughout the second rifle season and occasionally into the third season in many areas. This explains why CPW field personnel commonly refer to elk being located in dark timber during mild hunting seasons, and therefore, difficult to find. In contrast, when significant fall snowstorms occur, many elk will move to transition and winter ranges as early as second rifle season, which typically makes them more vulnerable.