Impact of drought and fires is uncertain for Colorado hunters

The fire season of 2020 and the continuing drought won’t have too much of an impact on this year’s hunting season compared to last year, maintain wildlife officials, though there will be some changes.

One change, according to Bob Morris, wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Grand Junction District, is areas that were offlimits

to hunters while fires were burning will be available once again.

The biggest fire to impact the Western Slope in 2020 was the Pine Gulch blaze that burned more than 139,000 acres. The fire started July 31, 2020,

and burned in both Mesa and Garfield counties.

The fires through the state didn’t have much of an effect on animal behavior, Morris says, with animals sticking to their normal spots despite the fires, but they might have affected hunter behavior.

“We’ll have to see if those hunters go back to where they were hunting before the fires,” Morris says.

Area hunters weren’t able to access last year could offer good hunting, Morris says, explaining that new vegetation growth makes good food supply for game; animals return to burn areas quickly because they like the vegetation.

With the Pine Gulch Fire area still recovering, this season might not be great for hunting but future years should be.

As for the drought, this year’s deer and elk hunting seasons, he adds, are shaping up to look a lot like last season with similar dry conditions; animals will be following the water, he says.

Dry conditions could also lead to animal behaviors such as becoming more nocturnal or sticking to the thick dark timber in the higher elevations. But mostly it will mean that they’re staying close to water.

The Grand Mesa has plenty of lakes and streams, Morris says, but in the Uncompahgre Plateau animals will have to work harder to find those water

supplies. Game might also move down from public to private land sooner than usual if that’s where they can find water.

“Animals are going to where the water is,” Morris says. “They can travel quite a big distance to get to it but they still have to have it. And they may be drawn down to private ground sooner if that’s where the water is.”

One other factor: If the drought continues, Morris says, there could be less vegetation in the elk winter range, meaning they’ll have to move elsewhere for food and water. If they start congregating on private land, CPW might look at options for managing the herd, such as issuing drought licenses. “A lot of it will depend on how the weather is over the next couple of months,” Morris says.