Mt. Crested Butte joins holding pattern over hunting proposal

“We need more information”

The Gunnison County commissioners aren’t the only ones perplexed over which side of the debate they should take on a proposal to limit elk hunting in the Gunnison area in 2010. On Tuesday, March 3, the Mt. Crested Butte Town Council considered writing a letter in support of the proposal, but for a second time the council decided to hold off writing any kind of letter until they had time to study the idea a bit more. 



The proposal calls for decreasing the number of bull elk licenses distributed as a method of increasing the number of elk that are harvested each fall.
The main proponent of the plan is the Gunnison Valley Stockgrowers Association, whose members feel that if bull elk tags are all limited in game management units 54, 55 and 551, those people who do get the opportunity to hunt will be more successful at harvesting an animal, thus allowing the area’s large herds to get worked down to a target size—no pun intended.  
The stockgrowers say hunters are currently having trouble harvesting an animal because there are too many hunters out in the woods, forcing the animals closer to civilization and areas where hunting is not allowed. That leads to damage and overgrazing of pasturelands where cattle are ranged.  
Opponents think the proposal could harm the economic benefits the area gleans from hunting tourism. Randy Clark, the owner of Traders Rendezvous, a Gunnison business geared toward sportsmen, says hunters who are spending the most money are the ones who want over-the-counter tags.
The proposal to decrease bull elk licenses would effectively eliminate the issuance of over-the-counter tags for game management units 54, 55 and 551, and tags for all bull elk hunting seasons would be presented in a limited draw. Certain seasons and hunting units in the area are already limited only.
“The majority of hunters enjoy coming to Colorado because they like the over-the-counter tags,” Clark told the council.
Local sportsman Allen Moores said the sportsman’s industry in the Gunnison area was as much of an economic generator as skiing, providing around 540 jobs. Moores said, “We’re in an economy right now that I don’t think needs to start hurting any more than it is.”
In January, the Stockgrowers Association informed the Colorado Wildlife Commission, which governs hunting practices, that they intended to submit a proposal to limit bull elk tags in the northern units from 2010 to 2015. But first they wanted to gather local support.  
The association presented the proposal to the county commissioners during a work session on Tuesday, January 13.  
The commissioners heard from opponents of the proposal during a later work session on February 24.
The Stockgrowers Association originally asked the Mt. Crested Butte Town Council to consider a letter in support of the proposal during a meeting on February 17. But at the time, some council members were concerned about what effect the proposal would have on the local economy. The council decided not to write a letter until they had more time to study the proposal.
The Town Council of Crested Butte heard the stockgrowers’ proposal on February 23 and agreed to send a letter to the Wildlife Commission in support of the proposal. But they are now reconsidering their position after some council members found out there was significant opposition to the proposal. That meeting to reconsider is scheduled for March 16.   
The Mt. Crested Butte council had the chance to reconsider writing a letter on March 3. Town manager Joe Fitzpatrick briefed the council on the situation and said the proposal was “an issue of supporting ranching in the valley, the importance of grazing on public lands and the ability to continue to have grazing if the elk herd is oversized. The size of the herd was established by the county years ago, but it hasn’t been attained.”  
Fitzpatrick said since the council hadn’t heard from opponents during their first meeting, there were some opponents of the proposal present to speak that evening. “The biggest thing that came up at the work session with the Board of County Commissioners [on February 24] was the question on the potential economic impact [of this proposal] on businesses in the valley. The Division of Wildlife was present at the meeting and made it clear they were not taking any position,” Fitzpatrick said.
Clark told the council he had more than 50 letters from business owners in or around Gunnison who were opposed to the proposal. Clark admitted he had not collected any letters from businesses in the Crested Butte area.  
He said “over-the-counter” hunters were important to the economy. “From a business standpoint that’s where we bring in the most money… Those are also guys coming in buying t-shirts, buying gas, and buying groceries,” Clark said.
Clark noted that his business was an authorized licensing agent, and his overall license sales dropped significantly about 10 years ago when game management units 66 and 67 went to a limited draw for elk tags, and all deer tags became limited.
Clark said if the proposal were implemented, the city of Gunnison would be encompassed by limited draw hunting areas. “We’ll be pushing our revenue and our hunters out to those other areas that [allow] over-the-counter tags,” he said.  
Clark said he felt the problem was not so much the herd size, but the animals’ distribution across important ranchlands in the Gunnison area. “This argument has been going on as long as I can remember and nobody has come up with a good solution,” he said.  
Councilmember Andrew Gitin asked if there was a happy medium the sportsmen and the ranchers could reach.  
Clark said having some units limited and some units unlimited is about as good as it could get. “As far as I’m concerned, we are now at the happy medium,” he said.   
Clark also said he felt the herd estimates were wrong, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service needed to do an accurate hard count of the herd size.  
Moores agreed that distribution was a factor. He said overall since 1990 the valley’s herds have been shrinking, but some areas still seem to be overpopulated. Moores said through more collaboration, the two sides could surely find another option.  
Mayor William Buck asked if Moores had thought of any options.  
Moores said some people would certainly disagree, but issuing tags in localized areas as a type of “distribution hunt” would likely help achieve the stockgrowers’ goal, while still allowing over-the-counter tags.  
Councilmember Mike Kube asked if the Sportsman’s Advisory Group, which contains members of the Stockgrowers Association, local sportsmen, and members of the Division of Wildlife and U.S. Forest Service, should be the party to figure it out. “Why isn’t that the best place to form some sort of compromise?” he asked.  
Moores said that idea was on the right track.  
Kube asked what the council could do to push the advisory group into action, and Moores said a letter from the council saying both sides needed to work together would help.  
Gunnison Valley Stockgrowers Association board member Doug Washburn spoke briefly in support of the proposal, along with Gunnison native and local rancher Brad Phelps.  
“I don’t think anybody can speak to what’s going to happen to the economy. What I’m pushing for is, I think if you take care of the resources and do what’s best for the elk, the deer and the grass, in the long term that will be what’s best for the economy,” Phelps said.  
Ultimately, the council didn’t know which way to proceed.  
Councilmember Dave Clayton said, “As a non-hunter, I can’t say what works and what doesn’t work.” Still, Clayton said, it was apparent that something needed to be done. “If there’s a problem with the [herd] population or distribution, that needs to be dealt with,” he said.
Councilmember Gary Keiser said, “I’m convinced by both sides.”
Councilmember Wendy Fisher agreed.
Buck said, “I think at this point we need to educate ourselves more on the details and get back to you folks… Obviously we’re interested in what the Board of County Commissioners has to say.“  
Keiser noted that since the Wildlife Commission won’t make its decision on the distribution of next fall’s hunting tags until September, “there’s no deadline pressure.”  
The county commissioners and the Gunnison City Council are both expected to review the proposal on March 10. Mt. Crested Butte has not scheduled another discussion on the matter yet.  
Prior to the Mt. Crested Butte meeting, commission chairwoman Paula Swenson said the commissioners have now heard from both sides of the debate. “One thing that is very apparent is we have an issue with managing elk in those units… Where the board is going to land is really hard to say.”  

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