As the intense winter weather continues, thousands of big game wildlife in Northwest Colorado have been forced to migrate farther west than ever before.
If the area populations continue to thin without return, Colorado Parks and Wildlife may decrease hunting license permits for the 2023 season.
The mortality rates of big game are the highest the area has seen since the mid-1980s, according to CPW, and what started as a catastrophic winter for younger animals has begun to affect the adult antelope, deers and elk as well.
“This has just been a tough winter, and the other thing about it is we’re really not done yet,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife Area 6 Wildlife Manager Bill deVergie. “The longer this continues, the more snow and cold temperatures will continue to take a higher demand on the animals.”
Typically, the animals feed throughout the summer and fall to store up enough body fat to endure a long winter. This year, the snowpack on the ground has made it difficult for the animals to get the nutrients required to survive.
In Routt County, the animals traditionally travel from Bears Ears to the Little Snake River or Sand Wash Basin areas in Moffat County. This winter, deVergie is seeing larger numbers head much farther west.
“This year, many of them have gone farther and pushed farther out in Browns Park, which is right on the Utah border,” deVergie said. “They’re going to the lower elevations where there’s a little less snow and a more open habitat and they can do better.”
Using data collected throughout the winter season and in anticipation of more losses throughout the spring, Parks and Wildlife biologists are cautious in their plan for 2023 hunting license recommendations.
Biologists, including deVergies, are suggesting a 40% decrease in licenses compared to the typical amount distributed annually. The winter impact has become so drastic, deVergie said there’s no other solution.
“Whenever we see a situation like this where we see a large decrease in the population size, we have to adjust licenses accordingly and bring them down,” deVergie said. “When you have your population go down, what you don’t want to do is continue with the same type of hunting pressure and reduce the population even further.”
State biologists came up with the roughly 40% decrease based on expert input, local hunter data and overall experience. The reductions will impact all of Moffat and Rio Blanco counties, as well as parts of western Routt and northern Garfield counties.
The reduction proposal is a recommendation and will be presented for official approval at the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission meeting in May.
While the plan would theoretically begin the recovery of the local wildlife population, it will have a direct short-term impact on local economies and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Fewer permits would mean fewer hunters traveling to the area renting hotels, gathering at tables at restaurants, and filling up their cars with fuel.
Those with Northwestern Colorado permits may even find hunting to be more challenging in 2023 as well.
“There’s still going to be plenty of opportunities for people to come, but not as many as we’ve had in the past,” deVergie said. “With less numbers of animals, hunting might be a little harder. Depending on where people hunt and how they hunt, it might be difficult to find the animals.”