Routt County Expect to see a limited number of orange-clad people in town and in the woods this weekend as rifle hunting season for big game opens today.
This is the first time in years that the first rifle season, which historically is the most popular, is draw only. That means hunters can't buy licenses over the counter and it means less hunters in the field this weekend.
"In terms of comparing with last year's first season, we're looking at a 40-percent overall reduction in the state," state wildlife manager Jim Lipscumb said.
In Routt County, that estimation seems about right, though it's hard to get an exact number right now, area wildlife manager Susan Werner said.
"From what (was reported to me) through the week, it has seemed pretty light," she said. "But we've been busy in the office."
Meanwhile, the new big game season structure, which changed from three seasons to four and also is a week later than last year, has hurt some local hunting businesses.
Rick Baker, the sporting goods department manager at Wal-Mart, said the fact that over-the-counter licenses will not be available for another week, which is actually two weeks later than last year, has hurt business. Southern hunters from places such as Alabama balk at the idea of driving to the Rocky Mountains only to besieged by inclement weather, he said. Wal-Mart's hunting business, which includes the sale of rifles, is down significantly from last year, he said.
"It's changed things quite a bit. The number of hunters is down," he said.
The state altered the schedule to allow for a longer big game season, said Division of Wildlife spokeswoman Babs Brockway.
"We were hoping to reduce crowding in certain areas by adding more time, which would improve habitat and hunting for the folks out there," Brockway said.
Hunting licenses for the second season, which starts next Saturday, cost much more for non-Coloradans. Residents pay only $30.25 while non-residents pay $250.25.
Other businesses have not been hit as hard by the change in the schedule of the big game season. Soda Creek Mercantile, which sells hunting equipment, though it does not sell guns, has experienced a boom in business in the past week, store employee Marilyn Turner said. Turner sold at least a dozen pair of Steamboat Springs-based Smartwool socks on Friday, many of them to people she believed were hunters.
Soda Creek carries bright orange hunting vests, camping equipment and panniers, which are attached to saddles and carry carcasses killed during the hunt.
It's difficult to see the financial impact of hunting in Steamboat Springs because of the growth that's occurring here. But smaller communities in the county depend on the revenue from the sportsman buying supplies, Routt County Commissioner Ben Beall said.
"The impact of hunting and fishing in Routt County in 1999, according Division of Wildlife numbers, was $40 million," Beall said.
Beall expects to see good numbers in the coming three combined seasons to make up for any drop this weekend.
"With the health of the elk herd in the Routt County, the hunters will come," he said.
The Bears Ears Elk Herd, which lives north of the Yampa River and east of the Little Snake River, is estimated to have 17,236 animals, according to the DOW.
That's a sustainable resource the county can bank on if the herd stays healthy, Beall said.
Lipscumb said numbers this year could be higher than normal with hunters wanting to get in on the cheap tags while they can. Next hunting season elk licenses for non-residents increase from $250 to $450 and deer licenses will increase from $150 to $270.
At the Food Mill in Hayden, waitresses saw a normal amount of hunters eating breakfast on Friday.
Though the Oak Creek Hotel is booked, owner Dave Harper said he has seen a difference in numbers.
The new season structure may have confused some people, Harper said.
The first rifle season starts today and goes until Wednesday. That's followed by two combined deer and elk seasons from Oct. 21 to Oct. 27 and Nov. 4 to Nov. 10, where bull-elk tags are available over the counter.
The regular rifle season ends with a combined deer and elk hunt from Nov. 11 to Nov. 15 with over-the-counter bull tags.
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