Tips on hunting the drought

The letter arrived the last week of June, and inside was the much-awaited blue license for the 2012 elk season. However, that application was made last winter, and now the conditions call for a change of plans.

But where do you go when it’s hot and dry and the weather shows no signs of changing between now and November?

During the past few years, when water was plentiful, big-game hunters got a bit spoiled. Camp out near a water hole? Forget it. No need to sit there when water was everywhere and the animals spread out across the map. This year, however, you’re going to have to relearn how to hunt.

“I’m a bit concerned about the dry conditions,” said Grand Junction taxidermist and longtime hunter Darryl Powell. “This lack of water and forage can affect antler growth and animal health.”

Drawing black powder elk and moose tags for Grand Mesa, Powell has several things going for him this fall. The moose tag is the only muzzleloader license available this year for the Grand Mesa herd, and it took Powell 15 years to get it.

Powell noted that most of the lakes on Grand Mesa still hold a lot of water from 2011, which makes conditions there far better than many other places. “It shouldn’t really change how I hunt,” Powell said. “But people hunting in drier areas like the Book Cliffs will have to find waterholes.”

It’s not a complete change for many hunters already familiar with scouting the dry country around the Western Slope. But that dry country is even drier this year, and animals are moving longer distances to find water.

Hunting success this year might depend on how adaptable you are. The summer’s hot, dry weather is expected to change where and when elk and deer herds feed and sleep. That means paying attention to where the best forage conditions are. And it may not be someplace you’re familiar with, which will force you to adapt just like the wildlife.

“As hunters, most of us are only able to see a snapshot of animal distribution resulting from forage conditions, hunting seasons and human activity,” said state big-game biologist Any Holland, of the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife. “That can make it challenging when things are different from what we’re used to.”

And this hunting season is shaping up to be very different from recent ones. Conditions heading into July were the hottest and driest in a decade, which means contending with 10 years of wetter season habits. Changing tactics, strategy and even hunting areas might determine whether you’ll put anything in the freezer.

Should the drought continue into the fall, look for a water source — whether it’s a spring, river or pond — someplace where forage can grow and animals can survive. Division of Parks and Wildlife biologist Brad Banulis encouraged hunters to scope out year-round water sources, especially perennial streams.

“There are perennial streams in our units where over-the-counter license are available, but these canyons can be extremely rugged,” Banulis said. “These are areas that elk use for escape cover but this year that may also be the most reliable water.”

Most places where you find water you’ll also find a food source. And one thing hasn’t changed: Wherever you find food and water, you’ll find elk.