Wildlife biologist Darby Finley, with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, talks with Moffat County landowner Clem Fitterer while Maybell landowner John Mainguy looks on. The Thursday meeting gave the public a chance to give input to DOW efforts to reduce the elk herd population in Northwest Colorado.

Photo by Dan Olsen

Wildlife biologist Darby Finley, with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, talks with Moffat County landowner Clem Fitterer while Maybell landowner John Mainguy looks on. The Thursday meeting gave the public a chance to give input to DOW efforts to reduce the elk herd population in Northwest Colorado.

Elk numbers jump

Better counting methods result in increase

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— When bull elk reach 2 1/2 years old, 50 to 75 percent of them leave the area they were born for new locations.

No one is sure of the reason, but discoveries such as this can make it a tough job for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, which is in charge of controlling animal populations.

Northwest Colorado landowners have complained for years that the elk herd population estimates were faulty, and those complaints did not fall on deaf ears.

A Thursday evening meeting at the Moffat County Fairgrounds pavilion was the result of such complaints. About three dozen landowners, outfitters and ranchers came to the public meeting to express their concerns.

Three helicopters and one airplane were used to survey elk herd ranges this spring.

"We used a grid system to count the elk on the ground," DOW wildlife biologist Darby Finley said. "We flew over 1,754 miles of winter range and counted 4,119 elk."

Using calculations that account for migration, high-density areas and other factors, the Bears Ears herd population was determined to have a population of 23,000 to 45,000 elk - a number that is much higher than the previous estimate of 11,000 to 15,000 animals.

"It's a higher number on paper, but the same amount of animals are still out there," said Bill de Vergie, DOW area wildlife manager. "We're trying to get the numbers in a range that the habitat can support."

The new numbers come as no surprise to some locals.

"There's way too many elk in some places," rancher John Smith said. "They move into these meadows too early and rub out the growth. They kill the edible brush."

The Moffat and Routt counties rancher said big elk herds are not always a good thing, and they even drive deer out of areas by overgrazing.

T. Wright Dickinson agreed about the elk populations at the Vermillion Ranch in the state's far northwest corner.

"You have the same obligation to protect the land as the people running livestock have," he told DOW officials at the meeting. "You need to survey for the health of the range. It can't handle the numbers (of elk) it has now."

While some public input was critical of the DOW population management methods, such criticisms were exactly why the meeting was called - to gather ideas and suggestions that might prove beneficial in controlling herd size.

"It's critically important to get a diversity of viewpoints," DOW public information officer Randy Hampton said. "This affects the livelihood of local landowners, and the public feedback will be integrated into the" Data Analysis Unit.

DAU plans are normally rewritten every 10 years, but the changing numbers of the Northwest Colorado herd prompted the DOW to re-evaluate the situation, Hampton said.

Public suggestions at the meeting included everything from a late-winter hunting season, to unlimited cow-elk licenses in certain areas and a possible hunt in Dinosaur National Monument.

Controlling an elk herd population can be as difficult as counting the animals was, and it's a long-term process, officials said.

"It's very difficult with the interstate movement of the elk," Finley said. "The elk also know they're safe in the monument, and they move there and stay put once the hunting starts."

Dickinson suggested the DOW re-examine the boundaries of hunting units.

"Elk cross the Green River side to side like it doesn't exist," he said. "Having a river boundary between units makes no sense."

Previous fires in Northwest Colorado have changed the landscape and the effects on elk should be taken into account, Dickinson said.

Also, with the Wyoming season falling later in the year, it gives those hunters a shot at Colorado elk that have been pushed north.

Controlling the herd size remains a priority, and de Vergie said the DOW will "stay aggressive" on reducing the size of the Bears Ears animals.

"The Cold Spring herd and the Bears Ears herd cross and are mix-matching in the Yampa corridor," he said. "We don't know where they'll end up."

In 2006, 18,000 hunting licenses resulted in a harvest of 7,300 to 7,400 animals in Northwest Colorado.

The number of hunting licenses issued in 2007 will increase from recent numbers, but whether the results prove effective in obtaining a manageable elk population will not be known for a number of years.

Craig outfitter Larry Bishop echoed the thoughts of the majority of people at the meeting, saying it's still too early to make any drastic changes to the hunting seasons.

"I think we should leave it alone until we get the facts," he said. "These numbers are all estimates and guesses. How can you make changes on that?"

Dan Olsen can be reached at 824-7031, ext.207, or dolsen@craigdailypress.com

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