Elk horn in on Grand Canyon water

Felicia Fonseca
Associated Press

Flagstaff, Ariz – . — Grand Canyon officials have reduced waste by banning disposable plastic water bottles and installing water stations for visitors.

But a new problem sprung up: Elk are helping themselves to water at the stations by lifting spring-loaded levers with their noses.

Now, officials plan to elk-proof the stations to outsmart the animals, conserve water and protect visitors from aggressive behavior by the animals.

In this Nov. 10, 2013 photo provided by Brandon Holton, a Wildlife Biologist with the Science and Resource Management at the at the Grand Canyon National Park, elks interact with visitors at the south kaibab water station at the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.

They are experimenting with a cage around the spouts at one water station and will change the way it's turned on.

"They got a little aggressive about it," chief resource manager Martha Hahn said. "They were pretty protective of that water and wanting to get it first."

About a dozen of the filling stations are set up throughout the park, but the elk favor one at South Kaibab Trail because it allows them to easily duck back into the woods.

The elk don't always back down when visitors approach. Instead, they take a firm stance, particularly when protecting calves or during fall rutting season.

Flagstaff resident Ian Tong was hiking rim to rim at the canyon with three other people in 2012 when they saw an elk guarding the water station at South Kaibab Trail.

The elk tried to intimidate the group by making clicking sounds with its mouth and following them on either side of the filling station, he said.

"It definitely was a 'go away' kind of thing," Tong said Tuesday. "She wasn't wanting to share."

Still, he said elk encounters are part of experiencing nature and he saw no problem with them at the watering stations.

The elk haven't hurt anyone at the stations, but the animals have charged at wildlife biologists trying to disperse herds with as many as 20 elk by staring them down and shooting them with paintball and water guns, wildlife biologist Brandon Holton said.

"Some move, some don't," he said. "Sometimes when you shoot them with water guns, they open their mouth."

For now, the water station at South Kaibab Trail is on winter mode, which means it operates through a button rather than the lever.

The elk haven't figured that one out yet but they do drink water left on the ground after tourists use the stations.

Hahn said a retrofit should be in place soon to deter the elk and discourage people from cleaning up at the watering station.

If the new design works, it will be used at the rest of the stations that were installed in 2011.

The park stopped the sale of disposable water bottles the following year. The containers once made up 20 percent of the park's waste and 30 percent of its recyclables.

Just recently, the elk were also made unwelcome at the lawns of hotels and lodges when nonnative grass was removed. The once lush lawns will be replaced with native vegetation that is abundant throughout the park, so elk don't frequent one area over another.

"They were terribly disappointed and decided that wasn't a good area anymore, so they're pretty much gone," Hahn said about elk grazing on the lawns.