cow elk with a calf
A cow elk with a calf. Credit: NPS

Officials Warn of ‘Unprecedented’ and 'Unprovoked' Elk Attacks in Estes Park

“We’ve never seen a year like this,” said a wildlife official about the three elk attacks in less than two weeks in Estes Park.

Wildlife experts say elk during calving season are extremely protective of their young. More often than not, though, they might charge and chase, but this season, experts say there has been an "unprecedented" number of attacks in Estes Park, Colorado.

"Cow elk with young calves are known to be aggressive, however, we've never seen a year like this," said Jason Duetsch, an area wildlife manager with Colorado Parks & Wildlife, in a statement.

Since May 31, the wildlife agency reported three elk attacks in Estes Park, about five miles outside Rocky Mountain National Park.

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"All three attacks have been unprovoked and unfortunate accidents," Duestch said. "We have no clear evidence to suggest these attacks were from the same animal, which underscores how uncommon the elk behavior has been."

The cow elk attack

The latest attack happened on the morning of June 7. The victim was an adult woman walking a dog on a leash. The wildlife agency said she startled a cow elk, which stood about 20 yards away. When the animal charged, she tried to run behind a tree for safety, but the elk knocked her to the ground and stomped and kicked her several times. She later sought medical attention. When wildlife officers arrived, they spotted a calf nearby.

The other two attacks happened on June 3 and May 31. In the June 3 attack, a cow elk attacked a four-year-old boy on a playground. During the May 31 attack, a cow elk attacked an eight-year-old girl while she rode her bike in a neighborhood. Both kids suffered minor injuries and both times, wildlife officers found elk calves nearby.

Why in Estes Park

Long before humans developed Estes Park, elk visited the area. Every fall they trek over for mating season. Then, cow elk return to the town in the spring for calving season. While both times of the year create great opportunities for visitors to see elk, they're also dangerous.

During mating season, bulls enter what's called a "rut." It's a time when they try to impress females by sparring and even bugling. However, experts say they're also "irritable, aggressive and extremely dangerous" to people who get too close. And during calving season, experts say cow elk may look harmless, but they're not. They have "heightened protective instincts" while their newborns have limited mobility.

Experts say when you're visiting a place like Estes Park, you should be aware of your surroundings, especially if there's an elk with a calf. City officials also warn that you should pay attention to signage as popular birthing areas have been labeled and marked off.