More elk means more hunters this fall

But local businesses won't necessarily benefit as DOW tries to reduce herds

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Large elk herds in Moffat and Routt counties mean more people will be licensed to hunt the animals this fall.

The Colorado Wildlife Commission announced at its last meeting that 8,930 cow licenses will be available via a draw to hunters for areas in Routt and Moffat County, doubling last year's figure of 4,100.

Statewide, 106,000 drawn cow licenses will be available during hunting seasons. That dwarfs last year's lottery, which totaled 74,500.

The increase in local licenses comes on the heels of new Colorado Division of Wildlife calculations that put elk herds at greater numbers than previously estimated, DOW big game coordinator John Ellenberger said.

The 265,000 elk that live in Colorado comprise the largest herd in North America.

The Bears Ears elk herd, which roams north of the Yampa River and east of the Little Snake River, is estimated to have 17,236 animals in it. The DOW would like the herd cut to 12,200 animals.

"With this number of antlerless licenses we hope to have significant harvest numbers on antlerless animals," Ellenberger said.

Harvesting cow elk, the antlerless gender of the species, is the most efficient way of thinning the herd, DOW biologists say.

The DOW wants to reduce the number of elk because a smaller herd is better for the forest, DOW area wildlife manager Jim Hicks said.

"An elk is a big animal and it can have a big impact on the amount of forage," Hicks said.

A large herd can negatively affect other animals that compete for the same food sources. That could be one of the reasons that deer numbers have gone down in Colorado as elk numbers have gone up.

Furthermore, more elk means more problems with crop damage on private lands.

"If we have a bad winter we can have a lot of game damage problems," Hicks said.

Elk used to be controlled by wolves in Colorado, back when the predator numbered 10,000 to 20,000, Sinapu program director Rob Edwards said.

"One of the things you see in a more natural system is that wolves and their prey have fairly stable populations," he said.

Without the wolf, elk populations can get larger than normal, which is happening right now, Edwards said.

But it isn't just because the predators are gone that elk numbers are high, other factors come into play as well.

For one thing, Colorado has a "heaven on earth" environment for the elk, Ellenberger said.

Also, research done at Colorado State University has showed that the winter survival rate for cow elk is 95 percent; that's nearly 10 percent more than DOW biologists previously thought. Using that knowledge, officials calculated the herds to be larger than what was once believed.

Furthermore, the same research showed that elk herds move from their normal grazing areas down to private lands or up to rugged areas when the hunting season begins. That makes it difficult for hunters on public lands to find an animal.

Last year's poor harvest numbers can be attributed to that. Because of the elk's migration habits, 4,050 of the 8,930 licenses will be for private lands.

"That will push a lot of hunting pressure onto private lands," Ellenberger said.

Licenses for private lands don't cost anymore than other license but they can only be used for one particular area.

Mixed feelings on increase

It's hard to know if the increase of draw licenses will mean more hunters in Routt County spending their money in local stores.

"We put a lot of licenses out there for people to draw for, (but) we might end up with a lot of leftover licenses," Hicks said.

Furthermore, businesses depend on over-the-counter tags not drawn licenses to get hunters in the door.

Since the first hunting season is draw only, more hunters may be in the county than what was previously expected, but they'll be going to the DOW to get their licenses.

Russell Gehl owns the Toponas Country Store and processes big game carcasses. He expects to see business in his store go down.

"How it will drop, I don't know but the licenses sales is a big part of my business," he said.

On the other hand, he expects his meat processing business will be strong because of the increase in hunters.

Marsha Harper owns the Oak Creek Motel with her husband, Dave.

"I don't think we're going to do as well," she said. "If it's draw, I don't think people would go out on the spur of the moment."

Usually, the Harpers see regular customers for the first hunting season and the hunters book the motel full, far in advance. This year the motel still has vacancies for the first hunting season.

Another issue is nearly half the licenses are on private land. Many times the owner of the land offers sleeping accommodations and food for the hunters, which doesn't do Gehl or the Harpers any good.

"I imagine people with the big dollars will come," Harper said. "Again, it's always the little guy who gets disappointed."

Plenty of changes

The increase in draw licenses is just one of many changes that the Division of Wildlife, hunters and businesses owners have endured in last two years.

First, the DOW determined it needed to protect dwindling deer populations and limited licenses for the animals to draw only. Business owners saw a big drop in sales last year because of the change.

Next, the season structure changed.

This year there will be four rifle seasons, with the first season being a draw only for elk and deer. That is expected to be a blow to local businesses who usually depend on a big first season.

"They make it harder as each year goes by. You can't count on a big hunting season anymore," Harper, the motel owner, said.

Furthermore, the Colorado Legislature sent a bill to Gov. Bill Owens that would raise nonresident deer licenses from $150 to $270 and elk and bear licenses from $250 to $450. As of Tuesday night, Owens hadn't signed the bill into law.

DOW officials and business owners believe the fee hike would reduce the number of hunters initially, but nonresident hunters would return eventually.

To reach Doug Crowl call 871-4206 or e-mail dcrowl@amigo.net

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