STEAMBOAT SPRINGS Thanks to the first over-the-counter bull elk tags of 2000, more orange-clad visitors are expected in Routt County this weekend than any other time of the year.
"We've been very busy," Colorado Division of Wildlife employee Valerie Cass said Friday.
All week, the DOW office in Steamboat Springs has been flooded with hunters buying tags for the second rifle season, which starts today and lasts until Oct. 27.
"They're in town and they're buying for this area mostly bull (tags)," Cass said.
Although she said she's seen many hunters, Cass wouldn't put a number on how many have come through the DOW office.
Most hunters prefer to hunt when the weather isn't as wintry, said area wildlife manager Libbie Miller. More areas are accessible and the conditions are generally easier to be in right now.
"The early season tends to be the busiest one," Miller said.
Possibly, word of a successful first rifle season, which was draw only, is helping boost hunter numbers this weekend, too.
Jim Hicks, area biologist for the DOW, reported that herds stayed on public lands during the first season. That could have resulted in harvest numbers in northwest Colorado being the highest in history for the first season, even with the draw-only limitations on hunters.
At Steamboat Meat and Seafood Co., Rick Mills estimated that 200 carcasses came in from the draw season.
"We'll get one-half to twice that number from this season," he predicted.
Mills expects to see good numbers all fall because rifle hunting seasons stretch into mid-November, increasing the opportunity to harvest animals late into the year.
The DOW uses Steamboat Meat and Seafood Co. to help estimate the number of animals taken from the field, as well as eyewitness accounts and information from hunters, Miller said.
It's difficult to immediately know the exact number of elk and deer that are taken from local herds. The most accurate harvest numbers come when biologist estimate herd sizes later in the winter, Miller said.
Colorado doesn't require an inspection of carcasses, so wildlife officials don't see all the animals that are harvested. Random checkpoints are set up in the county, but that's mainly to find people who are violating hunting laws.
Though sources show that the first season was strong, Miller said that doesn't automatically mean the next three open seasons will be successful.
The first hunters had the aid of a fresh layer of snow on the opening weekend to help track animals. Also, hunters in the California Park area, north of Hayden, were treated to an elk herd that didn't see many archers and muzzleloaders in those seasons last month because of restrictions in that area.
Plus, draw hunters are typically more prepared.
"Most of the hunters in the area I was at worked pretty hard for what they got," Miller said.
Because it was draw, some hunters were planing for the trip as far as six months in advance and knew where the animals were. That will be different than the next three seasons, for which hunters can get over-the-counter tags at the last minute and some tend to have less of a plan of action.
"In general, you get a different caliber of hunter," Miller said.
Historically the success rate in Steamboat Springs area is around 33 percent, Miller said.