Elk population stays steady, deer took a hit last winter
Like the changing colors and the cooler nights, hunting season is another sign that fall is here. For the hunters it can be the thrill, the camaraderie or just being outside that keeps them going out in search of game. For the Colorado Division of Wildlife, it’s all part of a plan.
The 2008 hunting season marks the fourth year in a five-year plan known as the Big Game Season Structure. The plan allows game managers from the Division of Wildlife to adjust the timing and duration of the seasons, and to provide a measure of control over the number of animals being harvested in each Game Management Unit.
The state is divided into 184 units that give wildlife officials the flexibility to adjust management practices, such as the number of tags being issued to hunters, to local conditions. Parts of 11 game units fall somewhere in Gunnison County. Five of those—54, 55, 551, 66 and 67—are referred to as the Gunnison Basin and cover public land on both sides of Highway 135.
Every year hunting seasons progress like the history of hunting itself, starting with the bow, moving to the muzzleloader and ending with the rifle, which has four seasons with the earliest seasons being coveted by hunters.
“Elk and deer are going to be pushed higher into the mountains and to more remote areas as hunting pressure increases. That is part of the reason there are many more tags issued than animals harvested,” says Tony Gurzick, DOW assistant regional manager for southwest Colorado.
Last year there were more than 14,300 tags issued for elk in the Gunnison Basin, with only 2,662 animals harvested. And even though there were about one-fifth as many tags issued for deer, which have a larger population than elk, there were still more than 2,000 deer harvested in 2007.
Big game tags can be obtained through a lottery, also known as a draw, which limits the number of tags available to hunters. The other option is getting over-the-counter tags, which are unlimited unless game managers decide otherwise for particular seasons or species.
During the current big game season structure, bull elk tags are unlimited over the counter. That will be the case this season.
Despite the cold and snow last winter, Colorado’s elk herd continues to be the largest in the nation, numbering between 250,000 and 270,000 animals. Numbers on the west slope have remained steady between the surveys conducted last fall and those done this year, says Gurzick.
In the local game units, the DOW estimates that there are 16,000 elk, with nearly one bull to every four cows. The number of tags being issued this year is the same as it was last year.
“Western Colorado just provides the best in terms of elk habitat,” says Gurzick.
Deer, however, did not fare so well. By January there was an effort by the DOW to sustain herds through a feeding program to avert a “catastrophic die-off.” The program was considered successful, according to the DOW website. However, instead of the average winter kill of around 15 percent, “mortality was likely 25 percent to 30 percent” of the herd.
The deer population in Colorado wasn’t always healthy enough to recover from such a heavy winter loss.
Gurzick says the DOW made the decision to limit the number of deer being harvested in 1999 after surveys and computer models showed that herds in many parts of the state had been in decline since the 1980s.
Although much of the herd has rebounded since then, the DOW has cut the number of deer tags available in half from 2007, due to the hard winter and higher than average mortality.
The division says the game units in the Gunnison Basin are managed for high buck to doe ratios, leading game managers to restrict tags that are usually the first to be offered. This arrangement lends itself to mostly established hunters with a high number of preference points getting the tags and the herds with the most bucks.
“There are a few reasons [the DOW] would limit the number of tags available in a [game unit]. Oftentimes we’ll limit a unit for quality reasons like increasing the bull to cow ratio, increase the quality of the animals themselves or to address crowding issues, because when you get so many people out it takes away from a good hunting experience,” says Gurzick.
Fewer deer tags being offered in an effort to maintain desirable buck to doe ratios could mean a hit to Gunnison County’s economy, which received more than $20 million directly related to hunting in 2004, according to a study prepared for the DOW that year.
The study, which details the economic impact of hunting and fishing in Colorado, says 4.7 percent of jobs, or 540, in Gunnison County were directly related to the hunting or fishing industry, leading to an overall impact of more than $40.5 million.
More information on the seasons, game units and hunting restrictions can be found in the DOWs Big Game Brochure for 2008, available anyplace licenses are sold or by stopping by or calling the DOW office in Gunnison at 641-7060.