Elk hunters who are more intent on putting meat in the freezer than they are on putting a trophy on the wall and don't mind the prospect of hunting in winter conditions, have much to look forward to in Northwest Colorado this fall.
A half-dozen game units stretching from extreme southwestern Routt County to the northwest corner of Moffat County have been selected by the Colorado Division of Wildlife for issuance of unlimited antlerless elk licenses during at least one of the four big-game seasons this fall.
Game units 25 and 26, which straddle the borders of Routt, Eagle and Garfield counties are available for antlerless licenses in all four seasons. Game units 3, 4, 441 and 5 -- clustered in the northern portions of Routt and Moffat counties -- will offer unlimited antlerless licenses in the fourth season, Nov. 6-10.
The six game units in this part of the state offering an unlimited number of cow elk licenses are a reflection of wildlife managers' efforts to reduce the size of the elk herd in Colorado from present numbers of about 278,000 animals. The most effective way to reduce the herds in specific areas is to encourage hunters to harvest more cows, thereby taking some of next spring's calves out of the picture.
"We're trying to reduce the number of cows," Jim Hicks, terrestrial biologist for the DOW in Steamboat Springs said.
Hicks said his agency has been working for a number of years to bring the gender ratio among the herds to between 20 and 23 bulls to 100 cows.
Game managers were hoping for a record elk harvest of more than 65,000 animals last fall, but the continuing heat and drought of the summer of 2003 stretching well into September dimmed those hopes.
When the final numbers of 57,300 animals harvested were tallied, they amounted to the third largest elk harvest in Colorado history. Given the conditions, game managers weren't disappointed.
Hicks thinks conditions point to greater hunter success this year.
"The elk will be more dispersed," Hicks said. "This year we've got plenty of water and forage up high (in the mountains). They could stay up there longer. It should be a really good hunting season."
Along with drought, Northwest Colorado has experienced relatively mild winters in recent years. And that plays into another dominant factor in the size of the state's elk herd -- infant mortality.
"Calf mortality is about the only natural mortality you get in elk," Hicks said. "And even in a bad winter, it's not very high."
The length of winters combined with the depth of snow, are the critical factors in the survivability of elk calves. When heavy snows come early and continue to build through a long winter, some animals are cut off from feed.
"1996 was the last bad winter we had," Hicks pointed out, and the last time there was a high incidence of calf mortality was two decades ago, in 1984. n