Hunters staying at the KOA Campgrounds in Craig usually have one reaction to this year's hunts.
"They're livid," KOA owner Patt McCaffrey said. "I've got guys up here now that have always taken home their limit, and this year they've got nothing.
"It's the worst I've seen in 10 years."
The feedback McCaffrey has received is identical to reports from hunters interviewed Oct. 25, during the last weekend of the second rifle season. Each hunting party asked said this was the worst year they had ever seen, mostly because they didn't see more than a handful of animals.
That is, with the exception of a Colorado Division of Wildlife-sponsored youth hunt. Adolescent hunters reported seeing different herd about 40-strong and had harvested elk to show for it.
At the time, DOW District Wildlife Manager Mike Swaro said the animals are around, but they're in the "dark timber," the more thickly forested areas of the high country.
However, hunters then and now, in conversations with McCaffrey and Chris Jurney, a local resident and member of the Colorado Outfitter's Association, said the problem might be there aren't enough big game animals left after the worst winter in recent memory.
Jurney, a local resident and outfitter, often speaks with hunting parties during the fall.
"There's not much positive feedback this year at all," Jurney said.
Some hunters said they may never be back, he added.
Jurney said the situation probably has to do with the number of animals killed this past winter, despite DOW projections that elk populations survived relatively well.
"I really think the Division knows there was a pretty good mortality this winter," Jurney said. "It's hard to tell, though, because they don't know exactly how many we have. With just the number of carcasses we're finding out there, that seems to be a big cause."
McCaffrey said she hears the same thing from hunters staying with her.
"There are people that have been coming here a long time, and they notice those things, like how many bones and carcasses are around normally," she said.
Based on data gathered through tracking herds, flyovers and field research, DOW officials said last winter did kill more big game animals than in recent years, but there has not been a "catastrophic" population decline.
The cow elk survival rate during last winter was about 90 percent, said Jamin Grigg, DOW terrestrial biologist for the Craig area. Although the DOW does not track bull survival rates, he added there wasn't any reason to think it would have been "drastically" worse than with females.
DOW spokesman Randy Hampton said there are two reasons hunters are seeing fewer elk this year than before: warm weather and fewer elk.
The stories about an increased number of carcasses should be expected, Hampton said.
"Winter last year was extraordinarily tougher than any winter we've had in the last eight to nine years," he said.
Accounts of bad success rates have come up all over the state, as well.
"What we have seen is warm weather," he said. "What hunters need to do is dramatically change their location and change elevation. It's a matter of going to where the animals are, and right now, they're still up high."
However, even in the high country, Hampton said, it should be expected that people will see fewer animals. For several years, local residents have insisted there were too many elk in the area, and the DOW started a plan to drastically reduce the elk population.
"They will see less elk because, for the last seven years, we've been killing elk," Hampton said. "We've been criticized by local ranchers, the local politicians, the local community because there were too many elk. It was demanded the DOW reduce elk populations. There's just fewer elk, and that's exactly what people wanted."
Whether Moffat County will continue to be the "Elk Hunting Capital of the World," which Hampton said it has been historically, is not a question he could answer.
"At some point, that may not continue," Hampton said. "We're seeing the result of what the community told us to do, and we'll continue to drive those populations down because of what the community told us last year."
Jurney said he doesn't believe the DOW should worry about compromising hunting season with the wishes of all ranchers.
"There aren't problems all over," he said. "The Division needs to take care of the problems where they exist."
Not all ranchers have problems with wildlife coming onto their property and eating livestock feed or damaging property, Jurney said. The DOW should maintain healthy herds and do what it can to help landowners who do have problems.
Unfortunately, Jurney added, communication lines have broken down, and nobody has a clear understanding of each other's issues.
"In all parties, everyone is at fault, really, whether it's the Division, landowners, businesses," he said. "We're all in this together. It can't be an us-against-them thing anymore. There's gotten to be a battle line drawn, and that can't continue."
The important thing for the whole community is to take care of the resource, Jurney said. Hunting means a lot to the community economically, and the animals need to be managed so that boon doesn't go away.
Moffat County Commissioner Tom Gray, also a rancher, said the DOW's goal should not be to favor one group or another, whether it's hunters or ranchers.
"The herd size should be based on what the range can support," he said.
It doesn't matter if herds are kept at high levels for hunters, Gray added, if a hard winter will come in and kill thousands.
However, range capacity is part of the politics of wildlife, Hampton said. In addition to resident concerns, the DOW has been under "huge pressure" from the Bureau of Land Management, the State Land Board and the U.S. Forest Service to reduce big game populations to make room for cattle grazing leases.
Gray also raised questions about the accuracy of the DOW's herd numbers.
Truly accurate numbers, besides being impossible, should be an afterthought for the DOW, Hampton said.
"The reality is, the numbers don't matter," he said. "What the people in Moffat County want is a balance of elk. If elk are knocking down fences, there's too many, whether it's one elk or 20,000. If hunters are not seeing elk, there's too few.
"Have we done everything right? No. We admit that. We are working with these objectives, though, and we want to and will continue to do that for the residents of Moffat County."
Collin Smith can be reached at 875-1794 or firstname.lastname@example.org