There are no sure things in elk hunting - weather conditions alone deal a different hand of cards every autumn. However, statistics compiled by the Colorado Division of Wildlife strongly suggest that hunters who are willing to settle for a cow in the first rifle season will do well in Game Management Unit 4 northwest of Steamboat Springs.
In the first rifle season of 2005, 1,215 hunters harvested 535 animals, and 345 of them were cow elk. The total kill converts to a 44 percent hunter success ratio.
Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton pointed out that Northwest Colorado was hit by an early snowstorm last fall that was a blessing to hunters. But the snow melted quickly and left hunters in GMU 4 high and dry during second season. That's when 1,116 hunters took just 189 animals - a success ratio of 17 percent.
Hunter success bounced back during the fourth season when 265 lonely hunters bagged 114 animals.
Hunters who take the opportunity to buy an over-the-counter cow elk license for granted might want to pay careful attention to a process unfolding at the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
DOW spokesman Randy Hampton said it's possible that in the near future, hunters may not find some kinds of elk licenses as readily available as they once were. Over-the counter cow licenses, for example, have been an important tool in a determined effort to reduce elk herds in the vicinity of Steamboat Springs, Craig and Meeker. The intent is to bring the overall herd sizes more in line with numbers the habitat can support for the long term.
Population objectives for elk are driven by biology, however Hampton said his agency also takes into consideration the opinions of rural property owners, business communities and hunters.
"This is where we're going to set our objective numbers and determine how many elk the people believe we can support up there," Hampton said. "We are not going into this with a set number."
The DOW has been putting off the meetings for several years to allow time to gauge the effect of chronic wasting disease on elk herds, Hampton said. Typically, the targets are adjusted every five years.
The process of setting new population goals concerns two elk herds in what has been one of the most productive elk hunting areas in the state, Hampton said. Of the record 65,000 elk harvested in Colorado in 2004, one third came from the two herds in this area. They are known formally as Data Analysis Units E2 and E6. The Bears Ears herd occupies E2 from the Wyoming line south to U.S. Highway 40 between Steamboat and Craig. The White River herd is in E6, stretching south of U.S. 40 in an area bounded by Meeker, Rifle and Glenwood Springs.
Combined, they totaled almost 58,000 elk after last season's hunt.
The larger of the two is E6, which totaled 41,000 post-hunt elk. The DOW wants to reduce that herd to about 28,500 within the next three years or so, Hampton said. The herd's size peaked at about 53,000 animals in 2000.
E2 comprises a smaller herd of about 16,700 animals and should reach the DOW's goal of 12,200 animals within one or two years, Hampton said. The population was as high as 28,000 elk in the late 1990s.
The DOW must try to strike a balance among competing interests, Hampton said. Some of them want to see larger elk herds. Others want to see smaller herds.
"Years ago, we had a lot of elk up there," Hampton said. "We wondered if we'd ever be able to dent that population."
Now, the time to begin applying the brakes to herd reduction may be approaching.