Hunting forecast

Difficult to predict what impact CWD will have on season, area economy

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— The last two big-game hunting seasons have been rugged for local businesses that depend on the orange army for a significant portion of their annual receipts.

In the late summer of 2001, motels, restaurants and sporting goods retailers knew that the number of out-of-state hunters would probably decline because of a sharp increase in the cost of elk licenses. Then came Sept. 11 and all of the difficulties it imposed on air travel.

"I'm surprised at the number of people who did show up last year," Tony Stoffle said. "Between the license increase and Sept. 11, I expected it to be worse."

Stoffle is an outdoor recreation specialist with the Craig Chamber of Commerce. He describes the big game hunting seasons as a critical portion of the area's economy. This year's hunting season is clouded by uncertainty over how hunters, both Coloradans and out-of-state hunters, will react to the news last spring that a small number of wild mule deer in Northwest Colorado tested positive for chronic wasting disease. The deer were trapped within a domestic elk ranch enclosure in extreme western Routt County. Although there is no scientific evidence that humans can contract CWD from eating infected game meat, the disease has similarities to Mad Cow disease, which is harmful to humans. The uncertainty is what businesses in Northwest Colorado are confronted with.

The DOW is trying to allay concerns by offering reasonable ($25) testing of hunter's animals at several collection points including one near Steamboat and one near Craig this fall.

The DOW estimates total direct expenditures as a result of deer and elk hunting in Moffat County are about $7 million annually and in Routt the number is similar.

Out-of-state hunters aren't the only ones who contribute to the economies of Routt and Moffat counties. The DOW estimates resident hunters will spend upwards of $4.5 million in Routt and $3.6 million in Moffat this year.

Last year, the price of a bull license for out-of-state hunters jumped for the first time in a decade, and the magnitude of the increase scared off some hunters the way the sound of an ATV's engine scares elk.

Elk hunters visiting from outside Colorado will pay $453.25 for a license last year compared to $253.25 in the fall of 2000.

Todd Malmsbury sees some positive signs that there is renewed interest among hunters developing already this summer.

Malmsbury, a spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, said this week that there has been a significant increase this year in the number of hunters applying for special licenses. Last year, 174,000 hunters applied for licenses that either allowed them to hunt for their choice of a cow or bull elk in specific game management units, or hunt specifically for a cow elk. This year, the number jumped to 198,000.

"We don't know there will be a measurable decline in hunters due to CWD," Malmsbury said. "Keep in mind no wild elk has been fond to have the disease outside the chronic area (in northeast Colorado). We've looked and we've not found any."

Cow elk are more abundant and therefore hunter success is higher. For those who care more about putting meat in the freezer than they do about a trophy, and who are fortunate enough to draw a cow license, this fall looks very promising.

After poor hunter success attributable to unseasonably warm, dry weather last fall left the Colorado elk herd above targeted populations, the DOW opted to reduce the cost of cow licenses this year, Malmsbury said.

A misprint in the 2002 Big Game Brochure indicated there were over-the-counter cow elk licenses available.

As in past years, the Colorado Division of Wildlife will not sell over-the-counter cow elk licenses for the 2002 seasons, despite a misprint on Page 27 of the 2002 Big Game Brochure that indicated they were available. The "Elk Licenses Fees" box listed a fee of $250 for over-the-counter nonresident cow elk licenses.

The Division has never sold over-the-counter cow elk licenses, because biologists want to keep track of how many

cows are in each game management unit in order to maintain viable breeding populations. Some units already are at objective for cow elk, so over-the-counter cow licenses would be problematic, since they are unlimited in number and could be used in an area where cows did not need to be culled.

However, leftover cow elk licenses that were not taken in the drawing will go on sale at Division of Wildlife offices beginning Aug. 13.

This is the first year the Division has had a price difference between cow and bull elk licenses for nonresident hunters because Colorado's elk herd is over objective, and more cows need to be harvested.

Last year, the price for both a nonresident bull elk license and a nonresident cow elk license was $450. This year, the price for a nonresident cow elk license is $250; the bull license price is $470.

Malmsbury said the impacts of last year's increase in license fees proved to be nearly what the DOW forecasted a decline of 35 percent.

He's optimistic there will be a rebound this year as hunters consider that the state has the biggest elk herd in the nation.

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