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DOW elk and deer proposals tell tales of plenty, woe

Dennis Webb

New big game population goals being proposed by the Colorado Division of Wildlife in the Glenwood Springs area reflect two starkly different realities.

Elk numbers continue to soar well beyond the DOW’s ability to control them, while deer populations continue to suffer despite the agency’s efforts to help them.

An estimated 74,100 elk inhabit the Glenwood area, which takes in the DOW’s White River, Piney River, Avalanche Creek and Frying Pan River data analysis units (DAUs). The DOW’s current population objective for those areas is 39,850 elk.

It proposes increasing its goal to 58,500 animals, which still presents it with a major challenge in reducing the current level of elk overpopulation.

As for deer, the current population of about 50,600 in the State Bridge, Maroon Bells, Brush Creek, Sweetwater Creek and Basalt DAUs is below the goal of 52,500. The DOW proposes lowering the goal to 43,800, partly out of recognition that the agency has only been able to nudge deer levels to targeted levels once or twice in the last decade.

“It’s not really realistic,” DOW wildlife biologist Gene Byrne said of the current deer target.

The lower goal being proposed takes into account the loss of deer habitat that is contributing to the difficulties in maintaining deer numbers. The increasing population of humans, and associated development, is cutting into deer territory, and particularly vital winter range.

“We just physically don’t have the amount of habitat that we did even 10 years ago in the Roaring Fork Valley,” Byrne said.

The DOW hopes that reducing its deer population goals may be the best thing for the deer. Too many deer in available habitat can affect the health of the herd, no different from having too many cattle in a pasture, Byrne said.

Reducing deer numbers allows those that survive to reproduce better, and gives the young a better chance of survival.

Current deer reproductive rates in some areas greatly concern the DOW. For example, in the Basalt DAU, which takes in an area stretching to Glenwood, there are only 2,600 deer, compared to the DOW’s current goal of 5,300.

In that area, the ratio of fawns to does has dropped to 33-to-100, from as high as 85-to-100 in 1981.

The Basalt DAU deer also provide evidence of the animal’s susceptibility to problems with winter, and lack of winter range. Deer are far more prone than elk to population losses during the winter. And their preferred winter range is in lower terrain that also is being more heavily developed.

For example, 58 percent of winter range for deer in the Maroon Bells DAU is on private property.

Deer in the Basalt DAU particularly suffered during a bad winter in the early 1990s. Some 400 were killed by cars on Highway 82 in the Cattle Creek area.

“We saw the ones hit by cars. You didn’t see the ones that starved on the hillsides,” Byrne said.

Faced with deer population problems across the state, Colorado began limiting deer licenses three years ago. While populations have gone up elsewhere as a result, deer in the Basalt DAU have yet to bounce back, Byrne said.

“There’s a lot of people who think if we kill the coyotes, that’ll be the answer” to Colorado’s deer problems, Byrne said. While there’s evidence on both sides of the argument, he said most professional biologists think habitat loss is the root cause.

Besides, he said, trying to reduce coyote numbers would require ongoing efforts, given how quickly they can reproduce, and would be difficult due to limits on poisoning and trapping, and opposition to aerial gunning.

The DOW’s resources are better spent improving habitat through controlled burns, reseeding, and promoting wildlife-friendly development, all of which have longer-term benefits than coyote control, he said.

Yet another factor in deer declines is the overabundance of elk, which can outcompete with deer for habitat and food.

“The big problem with elk management is the only way elk die (prematurely) is to shoot them,” said Byrne.

Elk live to about 25 years of age, and their natural mortality rate is only about 2 percent a year between the time they are yearlings until they are in their 20s, Byrne said. Meanwhile, cow elk can have a calf a year during all of this time.

The other challenge in keeping elk numbers under control “is getting hunters where the elk are,” Byrne said.

Many hunters don’t want to pack 10 miles into the wilderness for a cow elk. And many private landowners don’t want to allow hunters on their property to hunt cow elk because it can scare off the trophy bulls.

Elk are good at moving to wilderness, private land, canyons and other hard-to-access areas when hunting pressure begins, Byrne said.

“Then they just stay there until the season’s over.”

The DOW has addressed elk overpopulation through such means as offering late-season hunts, revising season formats, and most recently, allowing a hunter a second elk license if leftover licenses are available.

In the case of cow elk, the DOW also has reversed course after sharply increasing the cost of licenses for nonresident hunters. It has dropped the cow elk license from $450 to $250 for these hunters.

The cost for nonresident bull elk licenses is now $470, up from $450 last year. The DOW is now adjusting the cost of that license annually, based on the consumer price index, after facing what Byrne called a “revolt” by out-of-state hunters last year over the big hike in the cost of their licenses.

That revolt, combined with poor hunting conditions and the effects of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, meant that the DOW failed to meet its goals for managing elk numbers through hunting last fall.

The growth in elk numbers might be best exemplified by the White River herd, which is the largest in North America. In the early 1950s, it totaled about 8,000 animals. Now it’s up to about 53,400.

Byrne noted that the increase in elk population may be partly a paper one. The DOW is more knowledgeable now about population dynamics and can take more advantage of computer modeling, allowing it to better estimate game numbers. It may have been undercounting elk before.

While western Colorado deer face a new threat from chronic wasting disease, it hasn’t been found in the Glenwood area. However, it could still have an impact if fears associated with the disease cause some elk hunters to stay away, reducing hunting pressure on deers’ competitors for habitat, Byrne said.

If the public is concerned about deer and elk populations and associated issues, it wasn’t evident at an open house the DOW held Wednesday night in Carbondale. Only two members of the public attended to offer their input on proposed population goals and male-female sex ratios. A second such meeting will be held tonight from 4-8 p.m. at the Gypsum Town Hall.

Also, questionnaires regarding the proposals may be filled out, and further information obtained, at the DOW’s office in West Glenwood.

The proposals cover a 10-year time frame, an increase from the current five-year goals. Byrne said the change was made because the goals require so much effort to put into place. However, he said they can be revised as need be during the time they are in effect if conditions warrant it.


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