The population target for the Roaring Fork Valley deer herd must be adjusted because of loss and degradation of habitat, Colorado Division of Wildlife officials said Tuesday.
The current target is 11,100 animals, which was set in 1988.
"It's probably a level that is too high given the habitat condition," Julie Mao, a terrestrial biologist for the wildlife division, told Pitkin County commissioners.
The wildlife division plans to lower the population objective by early next year - then adjust management practices. The update will likely force the wildlife division to alter the number of hunting licenses it issues for bucks and does since that's really the only management tool it possesses, said Kevin Wright, a longtime wildlife officer in the valley.
Alternatives will be unveiled at a public meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Carbondale Fire House just off Highway 133. Wright said the meeting will be a good opportunity for hunters and wildlife enthusiasts to weigh in on a decision.
Technically, the local deer herd is called the Maroon Creek herd. It ranges from Independence Pass to just south of Glenwood Springs and over to Marble. The herd comprises game management units 43, 47 and 471.
While the goal has been to have 11,100 deer in the herd, that has rarely been achieved. Since 1992, the objective has only been reached twice, Mao said.
"We just can't grow and hold that many deer here," Wright said in an earlier interview. "Our deer population is down substantially."
The post-2009 hunt number was estimated at 6,400 animals. The size of the herd has plunged since 2004, when it last hit the 11,000 range. Mao said the five-year average is 7,400.
Development has forced deer out of winter range in areas like Prince Creek Road outside of Carbondale, West Sopris Creek Road in Pitkin County, and the north side of Dry Park southwest of Glenwood Springs, Wright said.
Hand-in-hand with the loss of habitat is the degradation of habitat. Fire hasn't been allowed to regenerate habitat areas. Fires have been suppressed for decades as the population of the valley has increased. As a result, forage isn't as plentiful or as high of quality in some areas.
The valley's explosion of an active, outdoor-loving folk has also brought consequences.
"[Deer] are receiving a lot of pressure from recreationalists - from mountain biking to cross-country skiing," Wright said. "To be honest with you, a cross-country skier has more impact than a snowmobile."
Nobody wants to stop people undertaking the pursuits that attracted them to the valley, he said, but seasonal closures need to be more closely honored.
"Where's the enforcement?" Wright asked.
One of his pet peeves is dogs running at large in recreation and residential areas.
Adding to the woes have been occasional tough winters, where snow and cold provide hardships and the herd "just gets whacked," Wright said.
Pitkin County Commissioner Michael Owsley suggested that the wildlife division, Pitkin County and other partners in conservation should consider making a map that shows where the winter range exists and explain why people should avoid those areas at certain times.
"The public needs more information than just those closure notices. They need a 'why,'" agreed Commissioner Rachel Richards.
The three proposals all lower the population objective by a significant amount. Alternative one would adjust the level to 5,500-6,500 deer. Alternative two would lower it to 6,500-7,500 deer. Alternative C would lower it to 7,500-8,500 deer.
The wildlife division staff won't recommend an alternative to the State Wildlife Commission until after all public comment is collected by Friday, Sept. 24.
To increase the population from the current 6,400 and stabilize it, fewer licenses to hunt does would be issued.
There are also implications for buck hunting. The current sex ratio is 28 bucks per 100 does. If the wildlife division determines that ratio should be boosted, it will require restrictions on buck hunting, at least for the short-term.
Anyone who cannot attend the meeting can review the draft management plan later this week at the Division of Wildlife website at http://wildlife.state.co.us and fill out a questionnaire. Comments are due by Friday, Sept. 24.