2017-03-18 / Outdoors

ELK WATCHER'S JOURNAL

Elk ‘licks’ popular this time of year

I wrote several years ago about the mid-March morning when I peered out the window of my camp at daybreak to see several elk in the driveway licking the dried salt off my very dirty SUV.

It reminded me of one of those custom car washes where four or five people simultaneously hand-wash each car and then polish it dry.

The animals weren’t doing me a favor. They were simply craving the minerals.

Each spring, elk have increased needs for magnesium, calcium, sodium and phosphorous. Immediately after shedding last year’s antlers in March and April, the bulls begin growing new ones. This escalates the need for minerals in their diet during the spring and summer months.

Likewise, females in the third trimester of pregnancy need increased minerals for the bone development of their calves. It takes as much nutrition for a bull to grow a set of antlers each year as it does for a cow to grow a calf.

But nature never intended for elk to lick road salt from vehicles. There is an abundance of minerals in the new green shoots that grow on plants and bushes in the springtime.

Naturally occurring mineral licks have supplemented the nutritional needs of elk and other cervids over centuries of time. These are areas where animals congregate to obtain minerals through soil consumption. The licks vary in size, usually have no vegetation, and are often located in damp soil near springs.

Writings of early settlers in Pennsylvania during the 1800s described how hundreds of elk traveled on paths to these spots. Some of the paths were as wide across as a highway and became the roadways for settlers to travel in covered wagons.

In more recent decades, some residents in Elk and Cameron counties placed mineral blocks on their properties in the spring. Both elk and deer would frequent these areas. This is now a violation of the Pennsylvania Game Code, a law that takes on primary importance because of the looming threat of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD).

An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure in this situation, since there is no known cure for CWD.

A disease that is untreatable and ultimately fatal for elk and deer, CWD was first discovered in Colorado in 1967. It causes the infected animal’s brain to develop tiny holes. Neurological symptoms develop and the afflicted animal becomes debilitated and unable to forage for food. Ultimately, it will starve to death.

When animals congregate in large numbers and frequent the same feeding areas, the disease can develop and spread.

And, who needs a mineral block anyhow? Just park your vehicle outside in elk country and you, too, might get yourself a free car wash.

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