Elk, bear, moose, rattlesnake – Colorado courses can have them all
Story and Photos by Jay McKinney
From the fish in the water hazards to the squawking geese that fly overhead and make an excremental mess wherever they land, every golf course has its standard assortment of wildlife. However, as in many ways, Colorado is special.
Golfers in Colorado encounter more than your average squirrel.
Remote mountain courses have it the weirdest. Employees there roam the fairways every day, all day and have legions of stories about run-ins with bears, mountain lions, elk, foxes, birds of prey. In Fall, Elk come down out of the mountains and camp out on any flat ground they can find. Whether they are seeking shelter, water, food or rearing their young – animals find their ways onto Colorado courses all the time.
Ryan Davis worked at Arrowhead Golf Club from 2007-2022 as an assistant and superintendent of the course that is adjacent to Roxborough State Park and its abundance of wildlife.
“One time as I was setting up the course for play in the dark of the morning, I came across a black bear wading in the pond on hole 14,” Davis says. “He was just sitting in the water minding his own business as I walked up on him. I did not see him until I was standing on the island tee. We just looked at each other and I walked away.”
While course employees might not always see the wildlife, their traces are everywhere. Another time at Arrowhead a hungry black bear managed to break into an outdoor walk-in cooler one night. Munching on salmon, beef, and everything else in sight, the bear feasted and then scattered the evidence all around the clubhouse grounds. The horticulturist found a whole ham with one bite taken out of it in the parking lot, indicating the bear must’ve been full after a while.
Mountain lions are even more elusive than bears but Davis said they have still made their presence felt. One former Arrowhead employee had a run in with a family of them multiple days in a row.
“It was a mom and her two cubs that were probably a few months old,” Davis says. “They would watch him mow the approach on hole 13 for about three days in a row. We told him not to get off his mower and called him Fancy Feast for a few days.”
While the bears and mountain lions may seem to pose the most risk, some herbivores can be far more dangerous. During the rut season in the fall, elk are arguably the most dangerous animals to both people and the turf. Davis is now the superintendent at Hiwan Golf Club in Evergreen and says he would trade the mountain lions and bears for the elk every day of the week.
The massive animals can weigh more than 700 pounds and wreck a green just by walking on it. But during the rut season, it’s not uncommon to see two males sparring and tearing up grass like it is tissue paper. Just before Davis took the Hiwan job last fall, two bulls were digging their antlers into a green and the damage is still healing months later. Not to mention, the elk’s urine kills grass just as easily as gasoline and is a constant task for the grounds crew.
In Estes Park, the Lake Estes 9-hole course throws in the towel and closes every September due to the elk activity. While they can be found wandering through the town and on the nearby 18-hole course that doesn’t close, elk really take over the 9-hole course since there are fewer golfers and an abundance of food and water.
“In all honesty it’s just too dangerous,” says Austin Logan, Estes Park’s Golf Operations Manager. “The male elk are super aggressive, and they don’t care if you’re in a golf cart, in a car, it doesn’t matter. At the 9-hole course there are also a lot of places where the elk can get trapped because of the river crossing the way it does.”
In 2020, Zak Bornhoft witnessed their aggression firsthand at Evergreen’s public golf course. On hole 17, Bornhoft and the rest of his group were surrounded by elk and one bull took exception to them playing through. The elk charged their golf cart and gored Bornhoft, lacerating his kidney. He recovered and told Colorado AvidGolfer then he would play Evergreen again.
Despite the potential risks, most wildlife encounters are harmless. The animals that inhabit golf courses are essential to the unique environments and have found a way to co-exist with the game. Just keep a safe distance and enjoy their beauty.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU ENCOUNTER…
- Remain calm and either hold your ground or back away slowly.
- Maintain eye contact.
- Never approach a mountain lion. Give them a way to escape.
- Do not run or crouch down.
- If a mountain lion approaches you, do whatever you can to look larger and speak loudly.
- If the mountain lion attacks, fight back.
- Never run from a bear.
- Contrary to grizzly bear attacks, if a black bear attacks you, fight back and do not play dead.
- Do not approach moose and leave the area if possible.
- Running from a charging moose is okay because unlike mountain lions and bears, it won’t trigger a predatory chase since they are herbivores.
- If running is not an option, hide behind something solid such as a tree.
- Keep your distance.
- If an elk approaches you, back away slowly.
- Don’t turn your back on them.
- Stop moving and stay calm.
- Slowly back away and give the snake its space.
- If bitten, stay calm and seek medical attention immediately.
Source: Colorado Parks and Wildlife
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