Figuring out how to help Southwest Colorado’s declining elk herds recover is not going to be easy.
That, at least, was the take-home message from Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff at a meeting to discuss elk populations Thursday night, which drew about 100 people.
“People are not seeing elk,” said Matt Thorpe, CPW district wildlife manager. “And we’re all going to have to make some sacrifices, assuming we want to grow our elk herd.”
In Southwest Colorado, elk populations have declined in recent years, and it’s still a bit of a guessing game as to the driving factor.
The decline, so far, has been attributed to the fact that about half the elk calves born in the region die within six months, and an additional 15% die before they reach a year old.
Whereas the average used to be 40 calves to every 100 cows, that ratio is now down to about 20 calves per every 100 cows.
Studies have been launched across the state to figure out why calves are dying at such a high rate, but in the meantime, CPW is looking for ways it can change the hunting season to alleviate pressure on herds.
More specifically to help, CPW is updating its management plan for elk in Southwest Colorado, which seeks to set population objectives, then adjust factors like how many hunting tags are issued each year.
Thursday’s meeting to get input from the public included two reoccurring suggestions: reduce the number of hunting licenses for out-of-state hunters and increase tags for predators like mountain lions and bears.
Wildlife officials have said many hunters are reporting issues with overcrowding during the peak of hunting season. And, some people believe it’s causing a disturbance to the elks’ breeding.
CPW biologist Brad Weinmeister said the agency has reduced the number of licenses available for rifle season, and more recently limited the number of archery tags. Nonetheless, it appears more cutbacks are on the way to help elk recover.
“We’ve pulled back everything we have basically in our control and our populations haven’t responded,” he said. “We’re now at some of our lowest elk populations.”
If hunter numbers in the field are going to be reduced, it should come from non-Colorado residents, many hunters said Thursday.
“We’re not going to elk camp,” said one hunter in the room. “We’re trying to put food on the table.”
Dan Hinds said he has been hunting the same area for 20 years, and every year, he sees more and more people from out of state.
“They have walkie-talkies and leave with nine or more bulls every year,” Hinds said. “It sounds like you’re (CPW) selling out the resource to the highest bidder, which is all these people coming in.”
Several hunters in the room suggested increasing the amount of hunting tags for mountain lions and bears to alleviate pressures on elk.
CPW has maintained predators are likely not the culprit of declining elk herds – in northern parts of the state, for instance, there’s the same predator dynamic, yet elk there are thriving.
Even so, CPW in the past year has increased the amount of tags to reduce bear populations in Southwest Colorado and is expected to do the same for mountain lions in the coming year.
Toward the end of the meeting, the conversation turned to the impacts other user groups, such as hikers and mountain bikers, have on wildlife. Ryan Bowers said hunters are usually the ones that have to sacrifice, while these others groups disturb animals, too.
“We’re one select group, and we’re getting all the limitations,” Bowers said. “I bet all the noise they’re making is having almost more of an impact than hunters are having.”
CPW’s Weinmeister stressed it’s likely a range of issues – habitat loss from development, drought, disturbance from recreationists – that is driving the decline in elk populations, and no one solution is going to fix the problem.
“All of these things add up,” he said. “It’s very concerning to us.”
A draft of the management plan is expected to be released in April or May. Residents can fill out an online survey at https://bit.ly/37NV74K.