A successful big-game hunting season? Hard to say | AspenTimes.com

A successful big-game hunting season? Hard to say

Janet UrquhartThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

Kelley Cox/Post Independent file

ASPEN – How some 1,300 deer hunters and 2,200 elk hunters fared this year in the woods and wilderness surrounding Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley isn’t yet clear, at least officially, but one man in a position to know said he believes the number of successful hunts was down considerably.Chuck Gross, co-owner of Gross Locker Plant in Silt, said business at the meat-processing facility he runs with his brother, Rocky, was the worst he’s seen in 34 years of processing big game.Gross Locker Plant is the only such facility between Denver and Grand Junction, and the closest meat-processing plant to the Roaring Fork Valley, said Chuck Gross.”You didn’t see nearly the hunters out this year that you used to,” Gross said. “I don’t know if it’s the economy, or what.”Gross contends the downturn is not just a matter of more hunters coming up empty, but a drop in the number of hunters. An out-of-state tag for a bull elk cost $550 this year, he said, suggesting the cost of hunting in Colorado was a contributing factor.The number of big-game licenses available in the Roaring Fork Valley, though, indicates there were more deer and elk hunters in the woods this year than there were last year.The final combined deer/elk rifle season ended last weekend in the state, though there may be some additional hunting on private land to control big game on those parcels, said Randy Hampton, spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.More than 300,000 deer and elk licenses were issued statewide this year for the rifle, archery and muzzleloading seasons; those hunters do not have to register their kills with the DOW, so tallying up the results of the hunt is not an exact science, Hampton said. Rather, the division will collect hunt data through online and telephone surveys with licensed hunters to arrive at an estimated tally. Those numbers won’t be available until March, he said.Anecdotally, Hampton said it appears hunters fared better during this year’s big-game season than they did in 2008, but that the number of deer and elk taken in 2009 was probably down from other seasons in the recent past.Last year’s warm weather and lack of snow kept animals up high and hidden, hampering hunters, Hampton said. This fall, early snows came during midweek, which probably helped out-of-state hunters more than locals who had to hunt on weekends, he theorized. The final weekend of the rifle season for big game, however, was a snowy one. “Last year was probably one of the most challenging hunters faced in Colorado,” Hampton said. “It was very warm and that made the animals hard to find.”The DOW decides in the spring how many licenses it will issue for big game, based on herd population estimates. If the population is bigger than what the DOW believes an area can support, it increases the number of licenses it issues, he explained. If the population is low, the DOW may issue no licenses or fewer licenses for a particular area, or clamp down on licenses to harvest females.For 2009, the DOW estimated there were about 5,900 deer in the Maroon Bells herd – the population in an area that extends from roughly Glenwood Springs to the top of Independence Pass, southeast of Aspen. It issued 1,295 licenses to take deer in the three game-management units associated with the herd, Hampton said.In 2008, 333 deer were taken during the big-game season in those three management units; the DOW issued deer licenses to 1,184 hunters there, he said.In the Roaring Fork Valley and surrounding area, elk hunters are seeking animals in one of two herds.The Avalanche Creek elk herd, to the west of Highway 82, numbered 4,023 animals this year, according to DOW estimates, and 2,245 licenses were available to hunt the herd in the three local game-management units.The Fryingpan elk herd – a large population area that includes the Fryingpan Valley and stretches east from Glenwood Springs to the top of Vail Pass, had a population of 6,973 animals, and 3,880 licenses were available.It’s possible not all of the cow elk licenses were sold, according to Hampton, but the license numbers don’t include some over-the-counter bull elk licenses that were also made available.In 2008, there were 829 elk taken in the three area game-management units by 4,409 licensed hunters. The hunting season for black bears also ended Sunday, Nov. 15. Bear hunters do have to register a kill with the DOW, so the agency will have an exact count of how many were taken, Hampton said.The local management unit for black bears includes all of Eagle and Pitkin counties, plus a small piece of southeast Garfield County and small portions of Delta and Gunnison counties. A total of 585 licenses were issued for the unit last year; this year, 630 were issued.The 45 additional licenses issued this year won’t necessarily mean a big increase in the number of bears that are killed, Hampton said, as the typical success rate is 3 to 6 percent among bear hunters.”You’re talking two, maybe three, more bears harvested,” he said.Though the tally isn’t yet available, Hampton said he believes the bear harvest in the Aspen area was down this year – possibly in part because a number of problem bears were relocated out of the area and because others were hanging out in town.The DOW has discussed increasing the number of bear licenses it issues in 2010, in response to the numerous bear problems in Aspen this year, but that number won’t be decided before next spring, Hampton said.janet@aspentimes.com