Elk season promising
It’s a good year to be an elk hunter.There’s been a record harvest in Colorado two out of the last three years and another solid hunt is anticipated this fall, according to the state wildlife officials.The Colorado Division of Wildlife hopes to reduce the statewide post-hunt population from 275,000 elk last year to about 250,000 this year, according to Bruce Watkins, the agency’s big-game coordinator for the entire state.The number has to be controlled primarily to make sure the habitat can sustain the population, he said.”Elk numbers went through a pretty dramatic increase in the 1980s,” Watkins said. The wildlife division underestimated the survival rate of elk and their life expectancy. As their populations grew, they “pioneered” into areas of the state like the sagebrush of the northwest corner, where they hadn’t been before.The population probably peaked around 2000 or 2001. The wildlife division started selling licenses for either sex and extended seasons to try to bring the numbers down. Those tools have been effective, as the recent record harvests show.”Where we can get hunters to the elk, we can reduce numbers,” Watkins said.But some elk congregate on large tracts of private property where hunting isn’t allowed. The wildlife division is also working with the National Park Service on tools to manage the elk herd that migrates to the Great Sand Dunes National Park in the San Luis Valley. Hunting isn’t allowed in national parks and monuments, so alternative management practices must be used.Watkins said elk are extremely smart. Some of the older cows, which can live for up to 20 years, will actually head to the sanctuaries once hunters start appearing in the forests.”They’re very good at figuring out where they’re getting shot at and where they’re not getting shot at,” Watkins said. “They know the drill.”When they congregate at specific places they can knock the ecosystem out of balance. For example, they might mow down all willow and aspen trees in riparian areas and prevent beaver from settling in the area. A high concentration of elk can also be detrimental to deer.Wildlife officers wouldn’t identify private property in Pitkin County where elk congregate because they didn’t want to embarrass landowners and ruin chances of working with them. However, hunters say Wildcat, a gated community or large lots for the ultra-wealthy, is one of the places elk hang out to stay out of harm’s way.Land managers of the Windstar property in Old Snowmass started allowing limited hunting a few years ago so elk wouldn’t congregate there.The wildlife division has estimated that 5,300 elk were in the game units around the Roaring Fork Valley after last year’s hunting season, according to terrestrial biologist John Broderich of the state wildlife division. The agency has started working on target populations for different parts of the state but hasn’t gotten to the Aspen area yet.Broderich said research after last year’s hunt indicated there was a good ratio of 46 bulls per 100 cows in the Roaring Fork Valley herds. There are about 1,000 bulls going into hunting season although not all have branched antlers, he said.An important figure on the health of an elk herd is the ratio of calves to cows. “We’d like to see it a little higher than that,” said Broderich.Watkins said calve-to-cow ratios generally rise when overall populations are reduced. There are a lot of calves being born now simply because there are so many cows, he said.Despite the lower-than-desired calve-to-cow ratio, Broderich said there’s good reason for hunters in the Roaring Fork Valley to be optimistic.”There’s a real positive outlook on the numbers and health,” he said.Archery season is already under way. It started Aug. 27 and goes through Sept. 25. Muzzle-loading season is Sept. 10 through 18. The first of four rifle seasons is Oct. 15-19.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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