Hunters in Southwest Colorado say fewer elk and too many hunters in the forest have ruined their favorite outdoor experience, so Colorado Parks and Wildlife is seeking solutions and wants public input.
At the Dolores Community Center Tuesday, about 90 hunters showed up to hear a presentation by CPW on the local elk population. Other area meetings are planned.
Wildlife manager Matt Thorpe and terrestrial biologist Brad Weinmeister discussed a variety of topics, including a new program to limit archery tags, a perplexing reduction in calf numbers, and various human and predator impacts to elk.
Audience questions were taken throughout the two-hour meeting and at the end.
Elk numbers have been declining in Southwest Colorado, going from an estimated 19,500 in 2015 to 16,889 in 2019, Weinmeister said.
Southern Colorado is seeing lower herd numbers, he said, and there are multiple potential reasons, including a troubling drop in calf population. Meanwhile, northern Colorado herds are doing better.
In an effort to stabilize the decline, in 2020 CPW will limit archery tags in southern Colorado to reduce disturbances during breeding season. Bow hunting, which takes place in September, has been rising in popularity, Weinmeister said, with 2,500 archery tags issued locally last season, a 25% increase from the previous season. Most bow hunters come from out of state.
The Colorado Wildlife Commission decided this year to implement a limited, sex-specific draw for archery hunters. Previously, archery licenses were unlimited.
“By making it limited, the goal is to reduce the number of cows being hunted to try and grow the population,” Weinmeister said. Exact quotas are still being worked out.
“The concept of limited archery scares folks, but it is not so limited that you can’t get an opportunity,” Thorpe added.
Since 2010, there has been big reductions in cow tags issued for rifle and muzzle loader hunters as well. But a big concern for biologists is that southern Colorado elk numbers continue to decline.
“We made drastic cuts to cow licenses, but the population is not increasing the way we wanted it to,” Thorpe said.
Calves are missingLow calf numbers from count surveys are especially worrying.
The long-term average is 40 calves per 100 elk. Since 2010, it dropped on average to 30 calves per 100 elk, and in 2019, there were just 17 calves counted per 100 elk.
“That is not sustainable,” Weinmeister said. “We are trying to figure out what is causing it, and if we can, hopefully there is a way to manage that.”
A study on low calf production and mortality is underway and includes areas in Montrose, Trinidad and Glenwood Springs. An area in northwest Colorado where calf numbers are strong is also in the study for comparison. Elk have just one calf per year.
Elk behavior and the varied impacts on them is complex, biologists said.
Increasing human population, more recreation trails and roads, animals hit by vehicles, and more rural housing continues to pressure elk, their habitat and migration corridors. Seasonal closures to protect critical winter habitat is a policy CPW promotes, and it advocates for clustering new housing to preserve open space for elk.
When a new trail, road, home, subdivision or oil pad goes in, that further decreases elk habitat and disturbs them, CPW officials said.
The cycle of drought then extreme winters are also hard on elk. Hunting pressure during the rut is another. Elk outside national parks are skittish, officials said, and do not habituate to hikers, bikers and OHV use.
“It is a complex system, so there is no simple answer,” Weinmeister said.
As a visual aid, he showed a map of winter and summer elk range in the area, then showed successive maps that overlayed the human pressure of roads, trails, towns, subdivisions, oil and gas wells, and other development.
In Colorado, adult elk’s main predator are hunters. Black bears have learned to prey on vulnerable calves who hide in the underbrush the first few weeks of life, and mountain lions will also catch them, Weinmeister said.
“But just because a predator is killing animals, it does not mean it is causing population to decline,” he cautioned.
CPW believes the bear population is too high, and more tags are being issued to reduce their numbers.
Wolves at the doorThere is another predator on the Colorado horizon who do prey on adult elk: wolves. A ballot initiative will ask voters in November if wolves should be re-introduced to the state. A pack has already wandered in on its own into northwest Colorado from the Wyoming population.
When asked about the potential impact of wolves on local elk, Thorpe said because of state law, state employees have to be careful what they say about the wolf ballot initiative.
“Do we know what will happen if wolves come here? Not exactly,” he said. “We can look at other places where wolves have gone.”
Wolves do prey on elk, he said, but what their overall impact on Colorado herds could be is not clear. He added that wolves are a federally protected species, so if voters allow reintroduction, there would be a process to determine how management would occur between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and CPW.
Local inputThe crowd peppered presenters with various comments and questions. Elk are an important recreation and economic driver, they said. Max Garcia wondered why there is so much hunting during the elk fall breeding time, known as the rut. Between September and November, there are six seasons: archery, muzzle loading, and four for rifle.
“The herd gets scattered, chased away while in the rut,” said Garcia, who has been hunting in the area for 47 years. “Now there are fewer out there.”
A hunter wondered if limiting archery will push more hunters into the second and third rifle season, “bringing in even more Texans.”
Another was concerned that too many prescribed burns are displacing and disturbing elk. Special hunts to reduce herds in agricultural areas have killed too many elk in the past, said another.
After the meeting, hunters agreed they have been seeing fewer elk, and are willing to endure fewer licenses for the population to increase.
“We’re OK with that; we want them to come back to our area like they were back in the day,” said Dolores hunter Kim Hamilton, owner of Dusk to Dawn taxidermy. “I depend on hunting for my business. If wolves come, it will make it worse.”