Big-game hunting seasons may have ended in Montezuma and Dolores counties, but Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials are just beginning to measure the success of the 2011 hunts and the impact on future hunting opportunities.
The only information we have so far on the success of the hunts is anecdotal, said Joe Lewandowski, public information specialist for parks and wildlifes southwest regional office in Durango. It takes time to gather the information we need to determine what kind of hunting season we saw.
Hunters were able to take advantage of four rifle seasons this year. Rifle hunting began Oct. 15, with an elk-only hunt, followed by three deer and elk combined seasons running Oct. 22-30, Nov. 5-13 and Nov. 16-20. Archery hunters had their fill of the action Aug. 27 through Sept. 25, and muzzleloader hunters took to the mountains Sept. 10-18.
As is typical of Colorado big-game hunting, weather played a large factor in success rates during the 2011 seasons, said Matt Hammond, parks and wildlife district wildlife manager for the Dove Creek area.
What I saw in the areas that I patrolled was that the early seasons, archers and first and second rifle, were below average on harvest, Hammond said. I think hunters were dealing with a number of factors, including warm weather and a full moon. Hunters seemed to have a lot of trouble finding the animals.
Hammond said he saw an uptick in the number of harvested animals in the final two weeks of big-game season, but most of the animals taken, particularly for elk hunters, were female.
The cow and doe harvest went up, but hunters were still having trouble finding those mature bulls and bucks, Hammond said. I think, overall, harvest was pretty much average in those last two seasons.
Hammond said overall hunter numbers appeared to be down this year, a factor he attributed to a still-sluggish economy.
Once the big-game seasons end, parks and wildlife officials begin the large task of gathering data from hunters and evaluating what, if any, changes need to be made in herd management.
Officials collect surveys from about half the hunters in the field to be able to put numbers to the stories they hear about the years hunts. Random phone and web-based surveys, along with winter herd counts, enable parks and wildlife officials to make educated decisions about the number of tags available for future hunts.
The surveys ask hunters to identify where they hunted, if they harvested an animal, what species they hunted, whether or not they were satisfied with their overall hunting experience and if they experienced overcrowding from other hunters. Surveys are collected every year from October through mid-February.
Data collected through the surveys is invaluable to the decision-making process, Hammond said.
The surveys are really important to us, as are the herd counts, Hammond said. We are very active in keeping track of herd numbers, and in mid-December we will start our helicopter flights to get a percentage of the animals throughout all the units. It is not only a total number count, but also a sex ratio. We use all that to balance the licenses out for the next year.
Hammond said he believes herd populations to be low in the area, a fact that already has impacted license availability.
Over the last few years, weve noticed our elk and deer population is declining, he said. We have reduced the tags for both of those to try and grow the populations back up.
Along with population numbers, hunter success rates are part of the formula to determine the number of licenses allotted.
We know statistically what the success rate usually is for an area, and we use that number along with the population trends and counts from the year before to determine how many tags we can put out, Hammond said.
Lets say there is a 30 percent success rate in a specific unit and lets say we need to harvest 1,000 animals for management purposes, then we will issue 3,000 tags or so. Some years you see higher numbers and some years lower. But it averages out, and over the years you are going to hit your mark.
A three-year average places elk harvests in Montezuma and Dolores county game-management units anywhere from a 12 to 50 percent success rate for rifle hunting, depending on the season. Deer hunters are typically more successful and enjoy a success rate anywhere from 35 to 80 percent.