County, wildlife chief discuss elk numbers

Elk herd size is the biggest wildlife concern Moffat County residents have, officials said Wednesday.

Moffat County Commissioners Tom Gray and Darryl Steele told Colorado Division of Wildlife director Bruce McCloskey at a meeting Wednesday that residents don't have confidence in the division's elk numbers.

Elk is a big issue in Moffat County, where herds damage fences and rangelands and enrage some homeowners.

McCloskey visited Craig to discuss some wildlife issues about which local residents have voiced concerns in recent months, including elk populations, hunting license allocations and sage grouse policies.

Commissioners told McCloskey that residents don't think the division is transparent in its elk counting practices.

The division has estimated that there are more than 41,000 elk in the White River herd south of Craig and more than 16,000 elk in the Bears Ears herd north of Craig. Both populations are above the division's population objectives.

The division bases the estimates on counts from helicopters, computer modeling and the number of elk killed during hunting season.

McCloskey said the division wants accurate counts as much as area ranchers do.

"If our counts are not right, we need to get them right," he said.

Moffat County Natural Resources Director Jeff Comstock said the division needs accurate counts before it can hope to reduce the region's elk populations.

The elk populations can be a divisive issue for the county, Gray said.

Landowners in the eastern side of the county benefit from the populations during the hunting season, Gray said.

But in the western side of the county, where elk spend the winter, landowners must contend with damage to their land without receiving the economic benefit of the animals, he said.

Steele said the elk populations near his home in Maybell are more than the land can handle.

"I think the numbers are probably overwhelming the winter range," Steele said.

Steele said he worries the elk could die off during a bad winter.

Commissioners and McCloskey discussed the possibility of the division counting elk from an airplane using high-resolution photographs.

Commissioners met last year with companies equipped to photograph and conduct aerial counts.

McCloskey said the division would consider counting elk using aerial photographs.

The division could quell concerns about the accuracy of counts if it showed photographs and evidence of elk herd counts, Gray said.

Gray said it could cost the division $60,000 to conduct aerial counts of elk in Moffat County.

If the division were to share the cost of the aerial counts with some of the agencies affected by the elk populations, such as the Bureau of Land Management and the State Land Board, the cost to the division would be less, commissioners said.

Brandon Johansson can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 213, or bjohansson@craigdailypress.com.

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