Deer down, elk up

Thanks in part to a spring warm spell melting this winter’s copious snow, most of the 17,000 or so elk that winter north of U.S. Highway 40 between Steamboat Springs and Craig ended the winter in good condition, including last year’s calves.

Herds determine tag availability

With elk and mule deer tags less available due to decreased population sizes, it’s unlikely for license availability in northwest Colorado to increase in the near future, Petch says. “For elk in the Bears Ears and White River herds, population goals were set in the past five years, and will stay at their current numbers for a while,” he says, adding that herd objectives are determined every 10 years by CPW. “We’ve ratcheted back the cow licenses especially the past two years.” For mule deer, Petch says the Bears Ears herd goal of 37,800 is “overdue for being looked at,” so the objective number could come down. But tags would still be harder to come by until the herd recovers.

“The elk came out well despite the amount of snow we had,” says Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) Area Wildlife Manager Jim Haskins. “They got through the winter in good shape.”

In general, adds Brad Petch, CPW’s northwest senior wildlife biologist, game wildlife in northwest Colorado fared well last winter. “Although we experienced heavy snows in the high country, particularly late in the year, winter mortality remained within expected limits,” he says. “Exceptions include areas south of I-70 in the Gypsum, Eagle and Vail areas which received heavy February snows.” He adds that while additional mortality, particularly of fawn deer, occurred in these areas, the snows coming in February instead of December meams they cleared relatively quickly.

“Animals appeared to go into the winter in good condition and calf:cow and fawn:doe ratios indicate a productive year in most elk and deer units,” Petch says. “Soil moisture and forage conditions were good in the early spring, although ranges in the far northwest received less precipitation than the rest of the region.” He adds that a lack of moisture in June dried out forage quickly during early summer.

Elk: Most elk herds, Petch says, especially those in the Yampa and White river drainages, have been reduced to reach their long-term management objectives. Parks and Wildlife terrestrial biologist Jeff Yost says the number of elk in the region is down to about half of what it was eight years ago, but by design. Current numbers, he says, are right on CPW’s population target as part of their efforts to cull herds to reduce crowding in key habitat areas.

Region-wide, licenses for 2014 are about the same those available in 2013, says Petch. The number of bull tags (including those for unlimited second and third season over-the-counter hunts) available exceeds 28,000 across the region, with cow licenses at just under 51,500.

Mule deer: Mule deer, Petch adds, are another story, with officials remaining concerned about the downward trend in population size on the West Slope. As part of its West Slope Mule Deer Initiative, CPW is hosting public outreach meetings to address the issue. But some parts of the region are faring well. “While concern remains for a number of mule deer populations that are below objective, including the White River herd, several herds in northwestern Colorado are performing quite well,” Petch says, adding that deer in Middle Park, the upper Colorado and Craig (the Bears Ears herd specifically) are near long-term objectives. “In these units and many others, buck ratios remain quite high, even when the total number of deer is less than desired.” More than 26,000 buck and 6,800 doe licenses were issued in the region in 2014.

Moose: While on a much smaller scale, moose, he says, are doing well. “Populations in most on the northwest herds continue to increase,” he says, adding that 88 bull and 112 cow licenses were issued in 2014, up by 19 from 2013. In addition, moose hunting in GMUs 15 and 27 and in Browns Park has been opened for the first time this year.

Pronghorn: Except for Middle Park, where objectives are about 50 animals higher, pronghorn populations remain somewhat below objective in most herd units in the northwest, says Petch. “Pronghorn are among the most sensitive of the big game animals to weather conditions, characterized by poor reproduction during both drought years and hard winters,” he says. “Populations declined substantially during the extended drought from 2001 through 2007 and are still rebuilding, particularly in lower elevation ranges in western Moffat County.” These declines, he adds, have resulted in reduced buck and doe license availability. This year, 1,780 buck and 1,100 doe pronghorn licenses were available, a slight decrease from 2013. But he adds that hunting should remain strong. “Pronghorn hunters successful in drawing a 2014 license should be able to find abundant antelope in most units,” he says.