The word on the herd — Elk numbers stabilizing; deer still down

As hunters traipse the countryside to fill their tags this year, they can do so knowing that herd numbers for elk, deer and pronghorn in Western Colorado are holding their own. “Northwest Colorado remains a great place to hunt and we anticipate another great hunting season,” says Colorado Parks and Wildlife Public Information Officer Mike Porras. “It appears that we weathered last year’s drought fairly well and this year’s range conditions are surprisingly good.”

Herd size determines tag availability

With elk and mule deer tags much less available in recent years due to decreased herd population sizes, it is unlikely for the tags in northwest Colorado to increase in availability in the years to come. Objective numbers for herds are determined approximately every 10 years by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, CPW biologist Brad Petch says, after discussions with landowners and sportsmen.

For elk in the Bears Ears and White River herds, population goals were set in the past five years, and will therefore stay at their current numbers for awhile.

“It takes a fraction of the licenses to maintain an objective as it does to get there,” Petch says. “We’ve ratcheted back the cow licenses especially the past two years.”

For mule deer, Petch says the Bear’s Ears herd goal of 37,800 is old and “overdue for being looked at.” So the objective number could come down in the next couple years if that herd is discussed, but with its population significantly below objective currently, tags would still likely be harder to come by until the herd recovers.

“The memory people have is from the 1990s and early 2000s,” Petch says. “It will take time for the public to get a sense if that’s where they want (the populations) to be.”

— Nate Waggenspack

Elk update

The number of elk licenses issued the past two years has dropped considerably to manage the populations, particularly limited cow licenses. And it’s worked, says CPW Senior Biologist for Northwest Colorado Brad Petch.

“Nearly all the units in northwest Colorado are at or close to their desired management range,” he says, adding that a couple of units in Middle Park and near Vail and Aspen are even growing. “It’s taken a long time to get there, but we’re as close as we’ve been anytime in the last 25 years.”

In the past couple of years, he adds, they’ve reached the objective range for the vast number of elk herds in the region, particularly the larger Bear’s Ears and White River herds. Objective numbers for the White River herd are between 32,000 and 39,000 animals, and it’s currently estimated to be “right in the middle of the range” at 35,000 he says. The Bear’s Ears herd north of the Yampa River is now at 16,500, he says, with an objective of 15,000 to 18,000 animals. “Those two herds account for the majority of the elk hunting in Northwest Colorado, and we’re right where we need to be,” he says. “It’s the first time in a long time that we’re at a management range where we want to be.”

The downside for hunters is that these numbers are lower than they were in the hunting heyday of a decade ago, meaning fewer tags, especially for late season cows. “We’re hearing from hunters that they’re not seeing the elk they were 15 to 20 years ago,” he says. “And license availability isn’t what it was, and is unlikely to return in the foreseeable future.”

But the region still offers some of the best elk hunting in the country. “Overall, the herds are healthy,” Porras says. “We intentionally have fewer elk than we did 15 years ago to meet population objectives, but the hunting is still very good and we still have very productive herds and two of the largest herds in the country. And there’s still plenty of license opportunity for anyone who wants to hunt elk.”

Mule deer update

Deer is another story, as numbers are continuing to drop in Western Colorado, spelling a decreasing number of licenses available.

“The general trend is that they’re not doing as well and are below objective management levels,” Petch says.

Colorado’s mule deer population is estimated at about 408,000, down from the 418,000 estimated in 2012 and 430,00 in 2011. That’s about half the level during the all-time high years of the 1950s.

More regionally, the White River herd’s estimate of 43,000 deer is well below the objective range of 67,500, adds Petch, and the Bear’s Ears herd is off by about 8,000 animals. As a result, he says CPW has reduced doe licenses available in the White River region by as much as 95 percent since 2007. “We’re not hunting anything like we were before that,” he says. “Things aren’t going well for deer there right now.”

A lot of this is because of weather, with the 2007-08 winter being especially hard, he says. Last December’s deep snow and bitter cold also affected herds.

State big-game manager Andy Holland says there’s no single answer to the collapse. “It’s a host of things,” he says, adding that other Western states also are seeing declines. “We’re looking at impacts from severe winters, increased human and energy development, habitat fragmentation and depletion, migration corridor fragmentation and more.”

But perhaps the biggest contributor to the decline has been recent weather. “We’ve had three hard winters for deer out of the past six,” Petch says, adding that in the worst ones they’ve seen up to a 50 percent mortality rate among fawns. “It’s not a rosy situation. It’s really hard to grow a herd with that kind of fatality rate.”

The good news, he adds, is that the proportion of bucks is “as high as anywhere you’ll find in the West,” and that their quality is high. And some units are actually prospering, with an up to 75 percent survival rate in certain areas north of Craig, says Porras.

The Middle Park region has enjoyed a high survival and low winter mortality rate, adds Petch, and is “performing beautifully.” Other regions in Eagle County north of Interstate 70 also are doing well. “There are some places where deer are doing really well,” he says. “And we’ve increased the licenses available for both does and bucks there.”

Helping Pronghorn

Concerned about unexplained decreases in a 100-strong pronghorn herd between Delta and Grand Junction, Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists recently began a multi-year study to determine the cause.

“Very few fawns are surviving and we don’t know why,” says Brad Banulis, terrestrial biologist for the Montrose area. “Aside from the recent droughts, we hope this study will help us figure out what’s going on.”

The project began with the capture of 19 pronghorns, with radio collars placed on 10 and neck bands and ear tags on the rest, to let biologists track their movements.

Shortly later, 24 pronghorn were captured in eastern Colorado and released near the Delta-Mesa county line. Nine were fitted with radio collars and the others received ear tags and neck bands. The pronghorn also were vaccinated against viruses responsible for fatal hemorrhagic diseases.

The transplanted pronghorns are expected to join the existing herd, Banulis says, which, combined with tracking, will help biologists determine the habitat they’re utilizing and if fawns are surviving.

— Dave Buchanan

Pronghorn update

From 2001 to 2005, pronghorn numbers took a huge hit across much of Western Colorado, says Petch, with last summer’s drought rough on them also. Herd populations are at or somewhat below longterm objectives, and they haven’t seen tremendous fawn crops, he adds. “We’re making some recovery and strides, but still not where we want to be.”

The problem, he adds, is that pronghorn are more susceptible to drought than other big game. Much of their range occurs in drought areas, and they’re less migratory than other big game. “Antelope populations are particularly fluid in regard to drought conditions,” he says, adding that fawns are particularly susceptible to dry conditions. “The rains we had this April came in the nick of time and helped as far as grazing, but we’re still in a drought, just a normal one.”

In what CPW calls the Great Divide Herd (herd No. 9) west of Craig and north of the Yampa, estimates place the number of pronghorn at 11,000 with an objective of 15,800, he says. Smaller herds are faring better, he says, including the 1,500-strong herd on unit 11 southwest of Maybell as well as those in North and Middle Parks, but the bigger herd number is more crucial and worrisome. He says he’s also hearing from hunters on the recent drought conditions affecting horn growth.

But he adds that it’s not nearly as bad as it could be. “We’re below, but better than we’ve been in a while,” he says. “Last winter hit the deer population harder than it did the antelope, and because of the spring we had we should be in decent shape.”