Weather conspired against hunters

Low elk kill numbers in 2007 don't have Division of Wildlife officials panicked

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— The news was grim, unless, of course, you are an elk.

"During the 2007 big game season : there was a significant decrease in the number of elk harvested," a Colorado Division of Wildlife news release says.

Hunters took 49,012 elk last year, nearly 8,000 fewer than the year prior. It was one of the least successful elk hunting seasons in Colorado in the past decade.

But neither hunters nor elk should worry. The species is not going extinct. The vast elk herds haven't abandoned Colorado or the Rocky Mountains, and the coming hunting season could be back to normal.

The low take last year could even lead to a big 2008.

"We're still going to be in the business of hunting elk in Colorado," Randy Hampton, the DOW spokesperson for Northwest Colorado, said. "With the harvest being low, in some areas that may mean more licenses in 2008."

Hunters hoping to take advantage of - or get revenge for - last season's shortcomings have until midnight Tuesday to register for a license.

An irregular winter - or specifically, the 2007 winter combined with eight years of comparably predictable weather patterns - proved to be the catalyst for 2007's frustrations.

To begin with, it wasn't cold enough, which kept Colorado's elk herds from migrating the way they had in the previous couple years.

"We were pretty consistent for about eight years, having mild falls turn in to mild winters, so people got used to knowing where they could find an animal," Hampton said. "This past year, we got a good snow storm to start the season and the hunters did fairly well, but immediately after the first season, it warmed up and stayed warm. When that happened, the elk moved back into the dark timber where they summered."

Without the weather to push them as it had in the past, traditionally rich hunting grounds were left barren.

The problem went further than just knowing where the elk were, area hunting guide Rick Myers said. Even if they could be found in the timber, getting to them and getting them out added a challenging hurdle.

The problem was especially acute among older hunters.

"Those guys that can't get around very well, they can't get back in there to hunt," Myers said. "It was tough hunting. They'd get back in that black timber and you just don't take a 70-year old guy and expect to shoot one back in there unless you're going to eat him right there."

Myers, a guide for Buck Mountain Outfitters, said it wasn't necessarily a bad season.

It was just a different one. The weather - which eventually turned into a record amount of snow at the Steamboat Ski Area - conspired to create even more abnormalities.

"We had a lot of elk around, but they were all tied up in the dark timber through the third and fourth season," he said. "Once (the snow) came in, it hammered us and those elk : they were stranded."

Licenses declining?

Hampton said hunters can expect plenty of licenses to be available this season, but that the numbers could begin to drop off in the future as area herds are hunted down to desired levels.

He said it's been an ongoing process to cut down the numbers, though a recently completed survey of area wildlife showed they aren't there yet. He encouraged hunters to be safe and be sure to register for Tuesday's drawing rather than count on obtaining a leftover license that may have been available in the past.

"There's not going to always be as many leftovers. As we start to taper the licenses down, fewer and fewer are left over," he said.

Still, he stressed it was all relative. A harvest that came up 8,000 elk short of 2006 numbers and the future "tapering off" of granted licenses do not mean area hunters were, or will be, hurting for opportunities to find that trophy. He said there will be nearly 40,000 licenses issued for the Steamboat Springs, Meeker and Craig areas.

"When I say taper off, we're still talking very big numbers in terms of elk licenses and hunting around Steamboat Springs," he said. "We still harvested 49,000 elk last year in Colorado. That's more elk than most states have. There is no panic by (the) Division of Wildlife."

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