Steamboat Springs Success for elk hunters and the Colorado Division of Wildlife this fall is still questionable as the first of four rifle seasons kicks off this weekend.
The season starts at sunrise Saturday and goes until a half-hour after sunset Oct. 16.
"I think we still have a question mark in our minds on what we're going to see," said Colorado Division of Wildlife District Manager Jim Haskins.
The stagnant economy and a recent chronic wasting disease outbreak on the Western Slope could affect the number of hunters that come to Northwest Colorado this year, Haskins said.
He flew over the California Park area, north of Hayden, earlier this week and said he was surprised to see many animals. Forage in the higher elevations doesn't look healthy, which leads to animals staying at lower elevations, where most hunters will be, Haskins said.
"I think the animals are there for the hunters. It's just the question of if the hunters will be out there," Haskins said.
So far, the figures available are hopeful. Unlike the next three seasons, all the hunters in the first rifle season drew tags from a lottery system.
"Basically, almost everything we put out there was drawn," DOW area wildlife manager Susan Werner said.
About 3,400 tags were drawn for the California Park area and about 7,500 were drawn around the Dunkley Pass area west of Oak Creek.
Throughout Colorado, 41,442 tags were drawn for the first rifle season. That equates to about 36,000 hunters in the field, around 4,000 more than last year's first rifle season, DOW spokesman Todd Malmsbury said.
The DOW is coming off one of its worst hunting seasons on record. Last year, hunters killed about 40,000 elk, about half as many as the year before.
Hunter numbers were the reason for the decline. About 40 percent fewer nonresident rifle hunters came to Colorado in 2001. DOW officials attributed the decline to the nearly doubled price of nonresident elk licenses in 2001, a stalled economy and the hesitation of Americans to travel after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Meanwhile, DOW biologists want to reduce the size of elk herds in Colorado. There are 270,000 elk in the state, and officials believe that number should be down to 180,000 to ensure healthy herds.
To put more out-of-state hunters in the field, nonresident cow (female) licenses were reduced to $250, compared to last year's $450 fee. The price of a bull-elk license increased from $450 to $470 to keep pace with inflation. The cost for either-sex licenses remained at $470.
"It's likely that we will be above last year's numbers," Malmsbury said.
The DOW's success in numbers is more dependent on the next three rifle seasons, which offer over-the-counter bull-elk tags instead of lottery tags.
Those seasons will show if hunter numbers and success rates improve over last year, Malmsbury said. The seasons run Oct. 19-25, Nov. 2-8 and Nov. 9-13.