Imagine a time when there were less than 2,000 elk in Colorado. Colorado Division of Wildlife records show the elk population shrank dramatically because of market hunting and the settlement of the West a century ago.
Such statistics must seem unbelievable to anyone who has driven the roads of Northwest Colorado. One of the prime indicators of Northwest Colorado's healthy elk populations is the car-versus-animal reports on Colorado State Patrol Sergeant Gary Meirose's desk.
Between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30 of last year, the State Patrol responded to 277 animal-caused accidents in a five-county area in Northwest Colorado. That was more than half of all accidents, and a majority of those accidents were elk or deer related.
Meirose said a study done two years ago concluded that the five-county area of Routt, Moffat, Grand, Jackson and Rio Blanco counties had more accidents than all but one other area of the state, including metro areas. And of those accidents reported, 72 percent were animal related, Meirose said.
"Pick a month. It really doesn't matter," said Meirose on the peak season for animal-related accidents.
"We see a little more during hunting season because the animals are pushed around. Craig to Meeker is probably one of the worst stretches. Pretty much pick a 20-mile radius around Craig. That's the worst."
According to the most recent DOW aerial counts, there are an estimated 278,000 elk in Colorado and more than 600,000 deer, a far cry from the days when elk numbered fewer than 2,000, and the deer population was at risk. The recovery of both animals is a success story.
On the flipside, the DOW and hunters who patrol the lands of Northwest Colorado are hoping for a successful 2004 hunt to help rein in the numbers.
"The populations are as high as they've ever been," said Jim Hicks, a terrestrial biologist with the DOW. "We've been trying to reduce the elk population. They get in areas where they find sanctuary on private land, and of course once they get there we have a difficult time getting a harvest on them."
One of Hicks' responsibilities is conducting the annual winter aerial count to determine animal numbers as close as possible. There is a spot north of Hayden where Hicks has seen more than 2,000 elk together.
But the largest elk herds are north of U.S. 40 to the Continental Divide (26,000 elk), the White River herd south of Steamboat and Craig (48,000 elk) and the Flat Tops herd south of U.S. 40 (52,000 elk).
"That's the largest area in the state," Hicks said of the Flat Tops herd.
Of course this is as it should be in Northwest Colorado, perhaps North America's premier elk hunting destination. This year, the DOW is doing everything it can to ensure a season that is more successful than last year, when 57,300 elk and 37,600 deer were harvested statewide.
"The conditions in many parts of the state weren't as good as we would have liked last year," said Todd Malmsbury, chief spokesman with the DOW. "They were too warm and dry. Despite that, we had a good harvest overall, but not quite as large as we hoped statewide. Overall, we had a good one because we had some good late-season success."
Archery hunters and hunters with late-season licenses and licenses for special hunts had more success in 2003 compared to 2002. The deer harvest increased as well compared to two years ago.
The DOW recorded near-record elk license sales last year, issuing 247,000 licenses, an increase of 17,000 from 2002. The agency sold more than 88,000 deer licenses in 2003, as well, the most in five years. Malmsbury said there also would be a large number of licenses available this season.
The animals are plentiful, and the hunters are expected to flock to Northwest Colorado. All that remains is whether the uncontrollable will cooperate.
"If we get a little snow during the first season (Oct.) we usually have a good harvest," he said. "That helps quite a bit, as long as we don't get too much snow ... we're going into a wetter cycle, and I think we'll see more moisture this winter, but it's hard to predict." n