ASPEN - Colorado wildlife officials recommend maintaining the elk populations around Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley at their present levels.
The animals are healthy, and the herds appear sustainable at their present numbers despite what Aspen-area district wildlife manager Kevin Wright called a worrisome ratio of cows, or females, to calves.
There is virtually no sign of chronic wasting disease in the local elk population, "which is good - it's a real good thing," he added.
Wright, with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, recently updated Pitkin County commissioners on the agency's management plans for local elk populations. The county encompasses part of the areas occupied by both the Fryingpan and Avalanche herds, which are the subject of management plans that are being updated for the first time since 1988, according to wildlife officials.
The 1988 plans actually called for smaller herds than exist today, though both herds peaked at far higher population numbers than exist currently.
The target population for the Avalanche herd in the 1988 plan was 3,300 animals. The herd numbered about 7,000 to 8,000 elk in the 1990s and early 2000s but has been gradually reduced to about 4,500 animals currently, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The herd ranges between Glenwood Springs and the summit of Independence Pass to the west of Highway 82 in an area covering about 544,000 acres.
The Fryingpan herd occupies an area east of the highway that covers about 865,000 acres. It stretches from Glenwood to Independence Pass and is bordered on the north by Interstate 70 to just east of Vail. Since 1988, the herd has been managed for a population of 5,100 animals, though it peaked at more than 10,000 in the 1990s and early 2000s. The population currently is estimated at 7,100 elk, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Updated management plans for both herds include alternatives to decrease the populations by 20 percent, increase them by 20 percent or maintain the status quo. Public input is being accepted through Jan. 18. Colorado Parks and Wildlife prefers to keep the herds at their present numbers, according to Wright.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife manages elk for populations that are biologically achievable and socially and politically acceptable, county commissioners were told. Available habitat, hunter harvests and other factors are analyzed.
Poor range conditions, increased development and recreational pressures mean boosting herd sizes to their former numbers isn't realistically possible, according to Wright.
"The populations that were present in the 1990s may no longer be achievable because of habitat loss and recreation," he said.
The calf-to-cow ratio in both herds remains below a desirable level, Wright noted, though the populations appear to be holding steady.
"Obviously, we're getting enough reproduction to maintain the population we have," he said.
A healthy ratio is about 48 to 52 calves per 100 cows, but it's hovering around 34 calves per 100 cows in the Fryingpan herd. It has dropped steadily since an average of about 56 calves per 100 cows in the 1980s.
"Something's not right with the system. That scares me a little bit," Wright said.
In the Avalanche herd, the calf-to-cow ratio is about 38 calves per 100 cows, down from 58 in the 1980s.
Intensified backcountry recreation, particularly during the winter in areas that are critical winter habitat, is an ongoing problem, according to Wright. It's an issue he raises annually with commissioners.
Recreation on the Crown, an area outside Carbondale managed by the Bureau of Land Management, is impacting the Avalanche elk population, Wright said.
"The Crown is probably one of the most important winter ranges we have, and it's becoming a mini-Moab," he said. "We've got fat-tired bikes going through it all winter."
People mistakenly think that if elk don't flee, they're not bothered by the presence of humans, Wright said. In reality, wintering elk are choosing to stay put rather than expend the energy to move, but their metabolic rates increase with human activity. They are burning energy as they stand still, he said.
Hunters have been surveyed on the management plans, and public comment is being accepted until Jan. 18. Go to www.aspentimes.com/elk to find the plans.
Comments that have already been submitted run the gamut from property owners who think there are too many elk to hunters who say they see too few elk compared to the old days and those who complain that all the elk take refuge on large tracts of private land during hunting season.