Shady projections?

DOW tries to shed light on elk populations

When Colorado Division of Wildlife biologist Jeff Madison asks a room full of people whether they think there is a conspiracy behind Sasquatch or the moon landing, only a few hands go up.

But when he asks whether people think there is a conspiracy behind the division's elk population projections, most of the hands in the room shoot up, Madison said.

"Sometimes, even the biologists will raise their hands," Madison said Monday during a meeting with the Moffat County Commissioners and area landowners.

Madison met with commissioners Monday to try to shed some light on the division's population projection process.

"There is a problem with what we produce and what you guys believe," Madison said.

The Division of Wildlife has come under fire from landowners who say there are too many elk in the field. Landowners say the overgrown populations hurt grazing lands and damage fences.

The division's population projections often are a target of criticism from landowners who say the projections are inaccurate and that the division isn't doing enough to reduce elk populations.

"There's not a whole lot of understanding of how we get to the numbers," he said. "There is a feeling that these processes are done behind closed doors."

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.

Although the populations are larger than the division wants, Madison said the division has taken an aggressive approach to reducing elk numbers.

In the past three years, hunters have killed more than 23,000 elk.

Part of the problem, Madison said, is that people think the elk populations are based on aerial counts, which isn't the case.

When the division goes up in helicopters to count elk, they aren't counting the number of elk, Madison said.

The flights are designed to classify the elk and get age ratios and sex ratios, which are plugged into the division's population models to come up with a projection.

Moffat County Commissioner Darryl Steele said the problem that some residents have with the division's projections goes beyond numbers.

"I think the credibility problem is more what we're talking about than the numbers," Steele said.

Commissioners and Madison said Monday that they would look into counting elk using photographs taken from high-altitude airplanes.

Having photos to back up the division's projections could help with the credibility issue, Steele said.

Commissioner Tom Gray said the county has discussed taking photos of elk from an airplane with a company that specializes in aerial photography.

Gray said the county isn't committing money to the program, but Madison said funding for aerial photography could come from a variety of agencies, including the Division of Wildlife.

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