Northwest Colorado offers a slew of game species, from pronghorn to grouse

Elk and deer aren’t the only things on hunters menus in Northwest Colorado. The region is also known for a variety of other species luring outdoorsmen to Moffat and Routt counties every year.

Aside from antlered game — elk, deer and moose — the next most popular species on hunters’ lists is likely the pronghorn antelope. Rifle bearers far and wide descend upon the region’s sage-covered plains and rolling hills for long-range, open-country hunts far different than the tactics used for other game. And this year should prove especially fruitful pronghorn.

“Despite heavier-than-normal snowfall, the herds are in pretty good shape,” maintains Jeff Yost, a terrestrial biologist for the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife. “We had higher-than-normal pronghorn and deer dawn losses over the winter and spring, and higher-than-average calf losses for elk, but for the most part, the adults survived pretty well. And with all that moisture, habitat conditions are great, which will compensate to some degree. The animals should be going into fall in really good condition.”

As with hunting for larger game, if you can get on private land, so much the better.

“Agricultural development and past drought years have redistributed antelope onto private lands,” says Darby Finley, wildlife biologist at the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife Meeker office. He adds that with healthy animal numbers, Wildlife officials have been able to maintain high license numbers. Pronghorn licenses are unlimited during archery season and by drawing only for muzzle-loading and rifle seasons.

Finley also points to the possibility of private licenses leftover from the drawing (available after Aug. 9) and cautions hunters to seek permission to hunt on private property. Colorado law does not require private landowners to post their property with no trespassing signs or fences, making it the hunter’s responsibility to mind property boundaries.

If you’re hunting pronghorn on public land, some of the best opportunities come early, toward the end of the archery season, in North Park.

“During the rut, the dominant bucks run the sub-dominate males back and forth to keep them away from the harem,” says Josh Dilley, district wildlife manager for the Walden East Game Management Unit (GMU). He adds that the populations are especially strong on the public lands across North Park’s five GMUs — a region otherwise known for its moose habitat.

It’s a different pronghorn picture farther north, however. On July 28, the National Wildlife Federation hosted a meeting in Walden addressing the results of a recent report by wildlife biologists John Ellenberger and Gene Byrne on declining pronghorn and mule deer populations along the Colorado/Wyoming state line, based on analyzing 30 years of data for game management units in both states.

Grouse and other species

Musings on mule deer and pronghorn aside, plenty of other game species in Northwest Colorado also garner hunters’ attention. On the bird side, grouse also regularly draw outdoorsmen to the area.

According to Division of Parks and Wildlife Meeker area wildlife manager Bill de Vergie, all three species — blue (dusky), great sage and columbine sharp-tail — are present and hunted regularly throughout Northwest Colorado. “Quite a few people come hunt for them every year,” he says. “There are separate seasons and bag limits for each. A lot of times even elk hunters are opportunistic and go after blue grouse during their hunts for bigger game.”

Steamboat Springs Division of Parks and Wildlife area wildlife manager Jim Haskins maintains that Hahn’s Peak Basin is one of the best in the state for blue grouse hunting.

On the other end of the spectrum, bears also lure hunters to the area. Haskins says that despite the heavy winter, the bear population remains strong and shouldn’t be negatively impacted from hunting pressure. “Not many people put in for the draw, so there are usually a lot of leftovers,” he says.

The mountain lion population also should yield successful harvests, with record-book cats taken as recently as last year.

The only caveat: It’s illegal to hunt mountain lions without a Division of Parks and Wildlife-issued mountain lion education certificate verifying completion of the Mountain Lion Education and Identification Course.

Hunters also are required to call 888-940-LION for GMU closures before any hunting trip — units will close as harvest limits are reached.