“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 getting ready to send a letter to the Colorado Wildlife Commission that will address the over-population of elk in the county.
The county commissioners are now drafting the letter to the CWC asking that the state take some measure to reduce the size of the elk herd in Gunnison County. The commissioners 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 and asked them to write a letter to the CWC, which sets hunting regulations for the Division of Wildlife, in support of the stockgrowers’ proposal to limit the number of licenses available for GMUs 54, 55 and 551 for the next five-year big game season structure.
The Stockgrowers are also asking for a letter of support from the towns of Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte, the city of Gunnison, the county 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 cattle 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.
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, displaced from public land by the lack of food, 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 them come out in opposition to the idea.
“I appreciate all the time the commissioners took on this issue,” says Guerrieri. “But I’m still not convinced that everyone understands all of the connections between wildlife, economics and limited licensing.”
Critics of the stockgrowers’ effort to limit elk licenses say that 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 says.
But while the commissioner’s draft 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 GSA is suggesting, was short-lived.
Over the long term, the graph shows Lake City increasing their sales tax collections past the point it was at 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.”
Clark said one reason the data cannot be applied to Gunnison County is due to an effort Lake City organized to fill the sales tax revenue shortfall created by limited licensing.
“If you called a business owner in Lake City and asked how they were affected by the change in the season structure, you’d find out that it was devastating,” says Clark.
According to commissioner Hap Channell, who is writing the letter for the board, the latest draft doesn’t make any substantive changes to the earlier version except to draw more attention to the many facets of the issue.
“The first version didn’t reflect enough of the complexity of the issue. I think that I would like to explain more of our position and express to the [CWC] our desire to see a more complete understanding of all the pieces,” says Channell. “[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 commissioners’ 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’ nomination packet to limit licensing in the three GMUs 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.
As for the other municipalities that were asked to send a letter to the CWC supporting the stockgrowers’ plan, the town of Crested Butte sent a letter of support, but is now considering rescinding that letter. Another, more neutral letter may be sent after more discussion.
The town of Mt. Crested Butte and the city of Gunnison were also asked, but neither has made a decision.