Earth Notes: Chaco Canyon's New Residents

Nov 13, 2013

A trip to Chaco Canyon in northwest New Mexico is a pilgrimage to see one of the greatest archaeological areas in the Southwest. While most visitors explore famed sites like Pueblo Bonito, lately they've been treated to an exciting - and unexpected - wildlife sighting.

Chaco Canyon elk
Credit Lauren Kiser

About 20 elk showed up in Chaco Culture National Historic Park in the year 2000. They likely came from surrounding mountains. By now the herd's grown to nearly 5 times that number.

Evidence of elk has been found in thousand-year-old Chaco sites - mostly awls and needles made of elk bone, and cooked bone in firepits. But through most of the 20th century, the animals were absent.

With domestic livestock fenced out for decades, the park's desert grass and shrubland has had time to recover. So these adaptable herbivores are finding plenty of food, also water from springs and potholes to slake their thirst. They seek shade under pinon pines in the heat of the day, coming out into open areas in early morning and late afternoon to graze and browse.

These big animals have been captured on camera at archaeological sites, and are leaving behind scat and trails as signs of their presence. Managers still want to learn more about how elk are affecting the park's cultural resources before deciding whether they'll do a full management plan.

Meanwhile, visitors in the fall may hear the heart-rending bugling of bull elk echoing off the soaring masonry walls of Chaco Canyon's ancient pueblos.