The hot trail goes cold

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— Last week, Colorado Division of Wildlife public relations specialist Todd Malmsbury was scrolling through e-mail updates from DOW officers all around the state on how the big game hunting season is going and a theme was repeating in the information.

"It's slow," Malmsbury said. "Very slow."

In fact, when the final open elk season ends and private-land hunting tails off, the 2001 elk-hunting season could be the worst on record. If that happens, it will come one year after hunters in the fall of 2000 raked in the most elk kills ever recorded, 60,000. (The worst was in 1975 when 22,600 elk were killed.)

"This may be the slowest big game season I have ever seen," DOW officer Jim Haskins said.

Haskins patrols the California Park area, north of Hayden in the Routt National Forest. He said hunters with deer tags are doing OK in his units, especially with the quality animals they are finding. Also, public land near Maybell is doing all right for elk harvest, and the people working hard tracking the animals, getting off the trails and roads and going to higher elevations, are having some luck, Haskins said.

But overall, things are considerably down.

There are possibly two reasons for the low number of harvests. No. 1 is the weather. The lack of snow is making it difficult for hunters to find animals. Malmsbury said the warm weather in the fall is good for mountain bikers, but not for hunters.

Snow helps hunters track and stalk animals. It also pushes elk down from higher elevation to find forage.

Haskins noted that most of the elk in California Park were pushed to private land where hunters on public land can't kill the animals. He said in other areas of the forest, reports indicate that the animals have gone to higher elevations where it is cooler.

A second reason for the decreased kills is a decreased number of hunters. Since out-of-state hunting licenses more than doubled this year, 25-percent fewer hunters were in the field compared to last year, Malmsbury said. DOW increased the tag prices in hopes to increase its revenues. About 40 to 50 percent of its revenue comes from hunting and fishing licenses. Though the number of people buying licenses was down, the DOW will not lose money on the deal because of the increased fee, Malmsbury said.

Bill Hammil, owner of Steamboat Meat and Seafood Company where many hunters in Routt County bring their carcasses said his business dropped off in the third season, which started Nov. 3 and ran through Nov. 9.

"We're probably 50 percent down," he said.

The first two seasons Oct. 13 to Oct. 17 and Oct. 20 to Oct. 26 proved to be OK, Hammil said. Additional help was hired to process the animals during those times, but now the extra employees have no work to do, he added.

Other businesses in county reported a drop in the number of hunters in their stores and in business. Lorraine Johnson, at Rainbow Sporting Goods in Hayden, estimated a 60-percent drop in hunters in the store, compared to last year.

Malmsbury said the low hunt and low hunter numbers could cause some changes next year.

"One thing it means, practically, is that we will have a lot of elk next year," Malmsbury said.

The most recent count is 260,000 in the state, which is most in one state of province in the world. In some areas, the herds are over objectives.

Next year, after cows give birth to calves, the number of elk will probably increase. That means the DOW may have to issue more cow (female) tags, which is the most effective way of reducing herd sizes. Wildlife officials also are considering lowering the price of cow tags next year or allowing hunters to carry a cow and bull tag.

However, over-counter cow tags, which local businesses support because it brings hunters in their stores, have not been considered, Malmsbury said. He explained that the draw tag system, which is in effect now with cow tags, allows the DOW to control the number of tags used on particular units. Some units don't need an exurbanite number of hunters trying to kill cows because the population is OK.

"The bottom line is a hunt like that (cow hunt) needs to be carefully controlled," Malmsbury said.

The last open hunting season for elk started Saturday and ends Wednesday. Haskins said if it snows, there is a chance that the 2001 season can be salvaged.

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