Elk are majestic animals. There is something regal about one of the largest species of the deer family that transcends their impressive measurements.
The Crawford elk farm in El Jebel is a perennial fixture in the Roaring Fork Valley. Noel Crawford, a ranching man of characteristically few words, has been the elk’s steward since 1983. He got his first permit to raise elk here at that time.
Standing over 6 feet tall, with a brine-rimmed baseball cap, Crawford walks with a slow gait. He is a person with deep knowledge on the subject of elk, but doesn’t readily share it. When he does talk, it behooves an individual to listen. For example, if you wanted to know the best way to remove an elk’s cerebrum from its skull, Crawford is an expert. (It’s high-pressure air, by the way.)
The elk or wapiti (the Native American name) is one of the largest terrestrial mammals in North America. “These are Rocky Mountain elk with a touch of Manitoba mixed in,” says Crawford. A full grown Rocky Mountain bull elk can weigh up to 700 pounds, stand five feet tall and eight feet in length. The males grow an impressive rack of antlers each year, which adds to their preeminence.
Situated just north of Highway 82 on J W road, the animals roam on 80 to 100 fenced-in acres. It’s up to Crawford, his son John, and longtime family friends Nick and Sal Rocco to tend to about 30 animals.
There are 20 male and 10 female elk on the farm.The elk are tagged with a number in their ear and that numeral becomes their name for life. A case in point is the alpha male of the elk farm, named 99.
At the moment, the elk are nearing the end of the mating season, known colloquially as “the rut.” Number 99, a 7-year-old bull, busily watches after his harem and asserts dominance over any other bull brave enough to challenge him. There are a few “spikes,” or yearling bull elks, out roaming in the pasture. However, the spikes congregate with the beta males far, far away from 99.
Crawford originally began raising elk as a business venture: “When we got into it, there was money to be made.”
The primary source of income was the harvesting of the elk’s velvet antlers. Some of the elk were also sold to other breeders and a small portion were sold for consumption.
According to Wikipedia, “Velvet antler is the whole cartilaginous antler in a pre-calcified growth stage of elk.” It is covered in a hairy, velvet-like “skin” known as velvet and its tines are rounded because the antler has not calcified or finished developing. Elk produce new antlers yearly. “Typically, the antler is cut off near the base after it is about two-thirds of its potential full size, between 55 and 65 days of growth, before any significant calcification occurs.”
These fuzzy antlers are largely exported to Asian countries for production into medicinal teas and other various concoctions.
At the peak of the farm, there were upwards of 350 elk on the property. That was around 2004. “I never had any problem selling my bulls back then,” says Crawford. Currently, raising elk is no longer lucrative, he said. Crawford cites the growth of excessive government regulations in the last 15 years as a major hurdle to profitability.
Now, the Crawfords keep the elk because the people of the Valley enjoy it.
“These are our pets,” says John Crawford. It is not uncommon to see curious people standing along the fence line in the spring feeding a crab apple to an elk. “It’s basically a hobby for everyone,” says Crawford.
Crawford’s father, Floyd Crawford, moved the family to El Jebel from Lake City, Fla., in 1961. It wasn’t even a township then. He purchased the El Jebel ranch and continued an agrarian lifestyle until the federal government chose his land to house workers for the Ruedi Dam project.
Floyd was a pioneer in the development of El Jebel. He helped organize the volunteer fire department, install a telephone system and expand the sewage treatment system, to name a few of his many accomplishments.
Noel Crawford reminisces about the days gone by in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“There’s a lot of people moving in (now),” says Crawford. “Where there was potato farming in the valley, it’s now mobile homes. There’s golf courses where there used to be dairies.”
As he motions to Upper Cattle Creek Road – the two-lane that ascends the bluff overlooking the elk farm – he has a sly grin.
“We used to rarely see cars going up there. When we saw a few go by in one day, we knew that there was something going on up there!”
One of the fondest memories of the elk farm, and both recounted by Adele Crawford and Sal Rocco, was the elk bugling contests held there in days past. Competitors would attempt to recreate the sound of haunting elk calls for a whopping $100 cash prize.
Rocco often competed in these tournaments as a youngster. “Growing up with the elk has given us such an appreciation for Rocky Mountain Elk,” he says.
An elk bugle is a distinctive high pitched siren, with a mystic, feral uniqueness that can’t be mistaken for any other. It is similar to the whistle created when blowing into a gasoline pipe. If done correctly, it will attract the bull’s attention and they will answer the caller back. A separate type of elk bugle is known as a “cow-call,” which is intended to lure female elk closer.
“It wasn’t really that safe,” Crawford chuckles as he fondly recalls the contests.