Steamboat Springs Mule deer herds are on the decline in western Colorado, and so is the number of deer hunters in Routt County. That’s at least partly because game managers are dropping the number of hunting licenses available while they search for answers to explain why the number of deer is decreasing.
One needs to look no further than Steamboat Springs’ own backyard to Game Management Unit 14 in the central and southern Park Range to see the evidence. In 2011, the number of deer harvested in GMU 14 totaled just 70. Only 19 percent of the 376 hunters were successful.
In 1999, when more licenses for deer were sold, 840 hunters harvested 215 deer, including bucks and does, in the same area for a still-modest hunter success rate of 26 percent.
However, wildlife managers say it’s much more than hunting pressure that has put deer herds on the Western Slope on the decline. Those officials can’t peg the drop on a single factor; rather, they say the degradation of deer habit resulting from a variety of human activities likely is to blame.
The long-term trends fit the news this week that the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission, hoping to stem the decline of deer populations, had trimmed the number of hunting licenses it will issue statewide by almost 6 percent.
Colorado’s wildlife managers will issue 79,800 limited deer licenses during the 2012 fall big-game hunting season. The current population is about 418,000, compared to 430,000 a year ago.
Parks and Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton pointed out Wednesday that his agency’s challenge with deer is the opposite of how it has managed elk herd through hunting licenses in the past decade. While Parks and Wildlife has managed hunting for elk to reduce the herds to levels their range can sustain, it has tried with limited success to bolster deer numbers by curtailing their harvest.
Close to Steamboat, in the range of the Bears Ears mule deer herd, the number of hunting licenses for deer will be reduced in 2012 in an effort to boost the overall herd up to 32,000 from 31,110, Area Wildlife Manager Jim Haskins said. The Bears Ears herd takes in seven game management units in the Park and Elkhead mountain ranges straddling Routt and Moffat counties.
The number of available antler-less permits will be decreased by 21 percent from 803 to 634, Haskins said. The number of either-sex permits will drop 19 percent from 1,300 to 1,050, and the number of permits for bucks will drop 30 percent from 3,043 to 2,120.
The straightest path to increasing herd fertility rates may be to reduce the number of licenses that allow shooting a doe, but Haskins said the reduction in buck permits was undertaken to restore the balance of mature male deer to the overall population. That’s being done to satisfy hunters’ strongly expressed desire to see more quality bucks in the herd.
Hunters do best in west
Hunters here generally have been more successful in the three other big game hunting areas in addition to GMU 14 located primarily in Routt County.
In GMU 5, comprising much of North Routt, the number of hunters in 1999 was 769, and the total deer harvest was 324. Those numbers dipped to 314 hunters and 145 deer killed in 2011. It was a similar story with a twist in GMU 441 in West Routt. There, 792 deer hunters went into the field in 1999 and harvested 391 animals, compared to 581 hunters and 305 animals harvested in 2011. Despite the lower overall numbers, hunter success in GMU 441 was greater in 2011 than it was in 1999, up from 49 percent to 52 percent.
Although the number of doe permits that will be issued this year is just a shadow of what it was in 1999, wildlife biologists have learned that reducing hunting pressure alone won’t be enough to restore herds to previous numbers.
Some sportsmen say predators like coyotes are an obvious cause for the population decline. But wildlife biologists think the disruption in habitat is a more likely culprit.
Biologist John Ellenberger, who had a long career with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, told the Steamboat Today in 2011 that he and other scientists don’t know exactly why deer and pronghorn populations are in decline in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming, but there is no doubt that human activity, from road building to energy exploration, are contributing to the disintegration of the animals’ traditional range.
Andy Holland, Parks and Wildlife’s statewide big game manager, told the Denver Post this week that despite continued reduction in licenses year after year, the herds continue to decline.
The severity of winter conditions that vary from season to season always have caused mule deer populations to rise and fall, but some wildlife biologists think there are other factors at play.
Haskin said Wednesday that what some people don’t realize is that it’s the severity of winter, and in particular the snowpack, in Moffat County that impacts the deer that summer in the mountains closer to Steamboat. The depth of snow on Mount Werner doesn’t always correlate to the condition of the range where deer spend the winter, he said.
“When we have a bad winter out west, it really sets the deer back,” Haskin said.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com