Elk populations are focus of DOW meeting

About 70,000 elk make their home in Northwest Colorado, more than anywhere else in the state.

The White River elk herd south of Craig has about 50,000 elk alone, making it the largest migratory elk herd in North America.

But when elk populations are as big as they are in Northwest Colorado, they can overburden the land, making grazing tough for livestock.

Officials from the Bureau of Land Management, State Land Board and Moffat County say there are too many elk in the region.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife is holding public meetings this month to get input from ranchers, hunters, business owners and land managers about Northwest Colorado's elk population.

DOW will look at the population objectives for elk and ways to achieve those objectives.

A meeting is scheduled for Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Shadow Mountain Clubhouse in Craig.

"We need to significantly reduce (elk) numbers to allow the resources to recover," Beverly Rave of the State Land Board said.

Rave said drought combined with elk populations above the DOW objectives have resulted in more elk than the land board's 191,424 acres in Moffat County can handle.

"There just isn't enough vegetation out there for them to eat," Rave said.

Moffat County Commissioner Tom Gray said there needs to be a balance between elk populations that keep hunters coming to the region every fall and elk populations that are so big they harm livestock grazing.

Gray said if elk numbers aren't sustainable, the population will die off.

Moffat County natural resources director Jeff Comstock agreed, saying unsustainable populations "crash."

"It's better to have a sustainable population than the boom and bust," Comstock said.

But, Gray said, an accurate count of the number of elk in the region is needed first.

"We need to find out what the real numbers should be and work back from that," Gray said.

To get a more accurate count of the Northwest Colorado elk population, DOW will conduct a quadratic census this winter. The censuses usually cost between $80,000 and $100,000.

DOW spokesman Randy Hampton said the census, which is a more intensive aerial count than DOW typically does, will give the division a good count, but there is no way to get an exact elk population.

"You can't go ask the elk to come out of the woods and raise their hooves and let you count them," Hampton said.

The computer model DOW currently uses is pretty accurate, Hampton said, so he doesn't expect the results from the census to be too different.

Currently, the DOW objective for the White River herd is 28,500 elk. For the Bears Ears herd, which is north of Craig, the objective is 12,200.

According to DOW projections after the 2004 hunting season, the actual numbers in both herds are well above objective.

White River has 41,500 and Bears Ears has 16,700.

Hampton said the populations are above objective because the counts the objectives were based on were off.

"It's not so much a matter of the population suddenly booming," Hampton said.

Instead, the populations are over objective because the DOW has more accurate counts now than they did when they set objectives in the 1990s.

Hampton said the computer model that the division uses to estimate populations miscalculated how long elk live and for how many years they reproduce.

To get the elk numbers back down to objective, Hampton said the division will issue more elk tags and have more elk seasons.

Contact Brandon Johansson at 824-7031.

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