Rifle season is not only important to the multitudes of hunters beginning their migrations to Northwest Colorado, but it's also critical to the Colorado Division of Wildlife and its efforts to control herd populations.
With archery and muzzleloading seasons now in the past and rifle seasons getting under way Sunday, different factors come into play before hunters can connect with the game they hope to find in the crosshairs of their scopes.
Early snowstorms in the high country have had little or no effect on the movement of animals at this point, said Randy Hampton, public information officer for the DOW.
"It's very early for the weather to have an impact on the wildlife," Hampton said. "Overall, across Northwest Colorado, we have had good reports from hunters. It's kind of an average season. We're on target to equal last year's numbers."
Hampton said storms occurring early in the season are good and bad for harvesting animals.
"The snow is good for hunters willing to work. The critters are moving around, and the hunters have better access to them," Hampton said. "It's also bad if it chases off the hunters, because that decreases the harvest."
In 2005, hunters harvested 57,000 elk in Colorado, and the DOW is hoping for another good harvest this year, Hampton said.
"We're trying to bring the elk population down by spreading the seasons out, and it's making it more challenging for the hunters."
Mike Bowman works for the DOW in the Craig-North District, and he said this year's harvest has been average.
"We've seen a 15 to 20 percent success rate in archery and muzzleloading seasons," Bowman said. "That's about average."
Bowman said two things cause the elk herds to start moving -- a significant amount of bad weather and a lot of hunters in the area.
"It's about the third day of the first rifle season when the elk start moving because of the pressure from hunters," he said. "We issue lots of licenses in that first season because we want a good harvest. That's when the elk are on national forest land, and the public has good access to them."
Bowman said that by the third and fourth rifle seasons, the weather begins to affect the hunt.
"In the later seasons, we issue more female (elk) licenses on the public lands located out west (of Colorado Highway 13)," Bowman said. "By then, Mother Nature has usually moved them to that area."
Bowman said that in October and November, DOW officers spend much more time doing law enforcement.
"The most common violation we see is people hunting on private land without permission," he said. "Colorado does not have a mandatory 'post your land' requirement. It's up to the hunter to ensure you are hunting on public land."
Bowman also said it is illegal to cross private land to reach public land.
Many sections of Bureau of Land Management property in Moffat County are not accessible without crossing private land.
He encourages hunters to purchase good topographical or BLM maps before heading out to the hunt.
The consequences for trespassing are a $137 fine and 20 points toward suspension of hunting privileges.
"It's mainly people not paying attention to maps or not reading them correctly," Bowman said.
The biggest concern for DOW officers is that hunters are safe while on public lands.
Hunters are not allowed to have a round in the chamber when in a vehicle. They are not allowed to shoot within 50 feet of the centerline of any public road. When riding on an all terrain vehicle, weapons must be in a case and empty. Shooting is not allowed from any vehicle.
Another common violation Bowman sees is "party hunting," or filling a license that is not a hunter's own.
He encourages hunters to report any violations they see and to admit their own violations.
"It's a lot better if you take ownership and report violations," he said. "The state looks at it a lot differently if you are caught."
The biggest key to an enjoyable hunt is being prepared, Bowman said. Read the brochures and be prepared for snow, even if the weather is nice before a hunt.