Big Game Licence and Harvest update

Big-game hunters will find slight changes in this year’s availability of deer licenses (more) and elk licenses (fewer).

Total statewide deer license numbers went up by 4 percent to 82,600, all available only by computer draw.

State big-game manager Andy Holland says that demand for deer licenses has remained steady throughout the past decade with an estimated 160,000 applicants every year.

This year’s total license numbers are up by 2,800 over 2012, but because of their distribution, the harvest is expected to drop 1,000 animals to 32,000 in 2013. So even though more licenses are available, hunter success doesn’t go up in direct correlation.

The majority of the license increase comes in areas where deer herds are rebounding from winter 2007-08 and/or have reached or are above desired buck:doe ratios and population objectives.

Those better-performing herds include the Gunnison Basin, where during the 2007-08 winter an estimated 9,000 deer were being fed emergency rations; and in the Middle Park, State Bridge and Sweetwater (western Eagle County) areas.

“The herds in Gunnison had a massive mortality event in the winter of 2007-2008 and the recruitment was minimal the next year as well,” Holland says. “The herd currently is recovering in response to productive deer habitat.”

Holland also notes that biologists have seen good fawn-to-doe ratios in recent years along with better fawn survival.

“In the winter of 2011-2012, the Gunnison over-winter fawn survival was one of the highest observed at 86 percent,” Holland says.

Estimates put the post-hunt 2012 deer population around 408,000 deer, well below the 418,000 estimated post-hunt 2011.

“Our predicted post-hunt population for 2013 is 414,000 as we continue to make progress toward the statewide population objective,” Holland adds.

The statewide population objective is in the 525,000 to 575,000 range for the state’s 55 deer herds.

While Holland says herds in far Western Colorado still haven’t returned to historic levels, “herds in the central and northern mountains are performing well.”

Limited elk license numbers, which make up about 66 percent of total elk license sales, dropped less than 1 percent to 138,300, a reflection of the state’s success in bringing most of the herd to within desired population levels.

The license numbers signal a fine-tuning of hunting opportunities, including a lessening of the need for antlerless (cow) harvest as herds reach desired levels, adjusting for the success of the late-season youth elk hunt, and trying to balance license numbers with demand.

Holland notes that, even accounting for the availability of unlimited over-the-counter bull licenses, the harvest of antlerless elk almost equals the entire bull harvest.

“This illustrates the significant amount of hunting opportunity” these licenses offer, he says.

Although 41 percent of the elk herds are above desired population numbers, some hunters and outfitters are complaining that certain elk herds are too low and hunting pressure should be reduced to allow them to grow.

Statewide elk numbers peaked at about 300,000 in 2001 but since have declined to the 266,000 estimated post-hunt elk in 2012. “We’re still harvesting cows at a high rate, but it takes a lot of cow harvest to maintain herd size,” Holland says.

Pronghorn license numbers were slashed by 21 percent, mostly in the southwest in response to a declining harvest even with more licenses available. Pronghorn harvest peaked at 12,300 in 2010, but subsequent years saw harvest declines, including 11,700 in 2011 and 9,900 in 2012. This year’s predicted harvest is 9,400 with a post-hunt population statewide of 65,000 pronghorn.