Big herds make Colorado ideal for big-game hunting

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Hunters flock to Colorado from all over the world during hunting season. They come to harvest pronghorn antelope, bears, mountain lions, deer and turkeys. They take in the legendary Rocky Mountain scenery and the ample stock of outfitting opportunities.

But with Colorado having some of the largest elk herds in the nation, these big-game animals are the state's biggest hunting attraction. And the Northwest Colorado region is home to the largest elk herd in the state.

"One of the big things in Northwest Colorado is the elk herd. It's extremely strong and deer populations are healthy, too. No matter what you're hunting for, the opportunity is great," Colorado Division of Wildlife Information Officer Randy Hampton said.

The elk population level is actually higher than Colorado Division of Wildlife big-game managers would like to see in the area, Hampton said. That has contributed to the agency's efforts to issue more hunting licenses during the past few years.

"Our weather steers the hunt," Colorado big-game manager John Ellenberger said.

It's always nice to have some fresh snow on the ground for tracking, but too much snow makes it hard for hunters to get where they want to go, and too little snow makes the game hard to find, he said.

Warmer and drier weather for several years leading up to the winter of 2003 let animals survive at higher than usual rates, Ellenberger said. But last winter was a little bit colder than the past few years, which made it closer to a typically winter than Colorado had had during the four or five years before that. He said elk were not likely phased by the lower temperatures, but deer, especially young ones, are more susceptible to the cold.

Regardless, big-game population estimates look strong heading into this year's hunting season.

At the end of the 2003 hunting season, the Division of Wildlife estimated there were approximately 278,660 elk in the Colorado wild. That post-hunt count was down about 20,000 elk from the end of the 2002 season.

Locally, Ellenberger said the Division of Wildlife count estimated at the end of the 2003 hunting season that there were more than 21,000 elk in the herd area north of Steamboat and another 48,000 elk in the White River herd to the south of Steamboat and Craig. Hampton projected that these two areas would be among the state's best elk hunting areas this year.

Colorado's deer population increased at a healthy pace last year. The agency's post-hunt count for 2003 was 602,690 deer, which was up almost 38,000 animals from the year before.

"There are lots of places you can hunt, but the opportunities are not always there. In Northwest Colorado, when you get a bull elk license there is a strong chance," Hampton said. n

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