“We don’t know how to get at managing the herd. That’s not our job.”
After months of debate and consideration, the Gunnison Board of County Commissioners is maintaining the middle ground over a “draw only” elk season proposed for most of the county.
In a letter to the Colorado Wildlife Commission (CWC) approved by the commissioners at a regular meeting on Tuesday, April 21, they ask that the state take some measure to reduce the size of the elk herd in Gunnison County, but stop short of recommending that the current open licensing system be replaced with a limited draw.
In January, members of the Gunnison Stockgrowers Association met with the commissioners to encourage a letter to the CWC, the group that sets hunting regulations for the Division of Wildlife, supporting their effort to limit the number of licenses available for GMUs (Game Management Units) 54, 55 and 551 for the next five-year big game season structure.
The Stockgrowers also asked for letters of support from the towns of Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte, the city of Gunnison, the local chambers of commerce and “just about every other body of elected officials,” according to Stockgrowers Association president Sandy Guerrieri.
“If we don’t change the season structure now, we will have to live with whatever decision they make for the next five years, and the elk can do a lot of damage to the range in that time,” Guerrieri told the commissioners in January.
With too many elk competing with cows for forage on federal rangelands, area ranchers are seeing the number of grazing permits available on those lands dwindle at the expense of their herds.
In a letter to the CWC, the commissioners said, “These unacceptably large herd populations have … significant negative impacts on our ranchers’ private land operations and on public land habitat degradation, which is impacting grazing permits.”
According to Guerrieri, data collected from across the state show that the lower the hunting pressure is in an area, the higher the percentage of successful hunts and the more elk that are harvested in a season.
“As hunters push into the most accessible areas of the county, especially in the north end of the valley, the elk are funneled down into the valley. Add that to the disruption to the elk’s migratory patterns that is caused by new development, and the elk don’t know where to go,” said Guerrieri.
The result, she said, is elk are forced onto ranchland to feed on the hay that has been stored to feed cows through the winter.
But for Guerrieri, it is better to see the county take a neutral stance on the issue of limiting elk licenses than to have commissioners come out in opposition to the idea.
“I appreciate all the time the commissioners took on this issue. They took a lot of time to understand the issue and all of its complexities,” says Guerrieri.
Critics of the stockgrowers’ effort to limit elk licenses say there isn’t enough evidence of success to support a plan that could take money from local merchants who rely on the stream of hunters that count on licenses available over the counter.
Randy Clark, owner of Trapper’s Rendezvous in Gunnison, says, “In this economy I just don’t think it’s a good idea to take income away from people. When we get hunters in, spending money, people are going to go buy something for themselves or send their wife out to get her hair done. That money trickles down.
“So when people come here expecting to get a license over the counter and they can’t, they won’t come back. When that happens, [hunting retailers] lose out and the whole community loses out,” he said.
But while the commissioners’ letter appeased critics of the plan by not asking the CWC to implement limited licensing, it counters one of their main arguments with data showing the initial decrease in sales tax revenue collected in the town of Lake City, which took a track similar to what the stockgrowers are suggesting, was short-lived.
Over the long term, the graph shows Lake City increasing their sales tax collections past the point collections were when limited elk licensing took effect in 2000. However, according to the letter, “We don’t know if this experience can be transferred to Gunnison County.”
But the letter also points out that children, who do not have the standing to get a license in a draw-only system, and meat hunters, who rely on hunting as a way to get food, would both lose out if the next five-year season structure were to offer only limited licensing in the county.
According to commissioner Hap Channell, who is writing the letter for the BOCC, “[The letter] will be neutral from the standpoint of an approach to the problem. I don’t think it will be neutral in that it will call explicitly for something to be done.”
Explaining the BOCC’s refusal to take a position, despite the stockgrowers’ courting, commission chairperson Paula Swenson says, “We don’t know how to get at managing the herd. That’s not our job. But we do know that there are too many elk in the area and we want to get that under control.”
The deadline for the Stockgrowers Association nomination packet to limit licensing in the three GMU’s is May 1. The CWC and Colorado Division of Wildlife won’t make a decision on whether to limit the number of elk licenses available in Gunnison County until September.
The town of Crested Butte had sent a letter to the CWC in support of limited licensing, but has since reconsidered its stance. The town of Mt. Crested Butte is sending a letter and the city of Gunnison is still considering a position to take.