Moffat County Commissioners Tom Gray and Tom Mathers said the Colorado Division of Wildlife needs to demonstrate honesty and make itself available to local residents if it wants to improve its public image.
Two high-ranking DOW officials sat down with the commission for an informal workshop Tuesday afternoon looking for that specific advice.
"There's obvious issues between : the public in general and the Division of Wildlife - a credibility issue, a trust issue," said Ron Velarde, DOW northwest regional manager. "I take it to heart. I'm trying to work on the issues that are out there."
Mathers, who also operates a private ranch, said he asked people across town about their problems with the DOW and that the primary issue is trust.
"They said the best thing you can do is tell the truth," Mathers said. "To them, it seems like you try to hide the truth."
Especially about elk population numbers, he added.
"I always tell the truth," Velarde said. "It's a matter of whether people want to believe us or not."
Bill de Vergie, DOW area wildlife manager for the Meeker office, said his agency believes in the population estimates it has, though officials have not prepared an estimate for this year.
Elk populations declined in the past few years, he said, though they did not suffer a high death rate during the 2007-08 winter, which many residents thought was a particularly harsh time for local wildlife.
If de Vergie were to guess, he said the current Bears Ears elk herd is about 16,000 to 25,000 animals.
Gray, who also operates a private ranch, said he could not follow the division's math.
The DOW did a quadratic census in February 2007 of elk in the Bears Ears herd, which encompasses all elk north of the Yampa River.
Afterward, it announced the study produced a population range between 23,000 and 45,000 elk, with a probable midrange at about 32,000, Gray said.
If the population was at 32,000 in early 2007, then it likely would be around 40,000 by the end of calving season later that year, he added.
The DOW reported hunters killed about 6,000 elk that year, which was a low harvest, Gray said. That would make it about 34,000 elk at the start of 2008.
How could the herd drop from 34,000 elk to 25,000 or below, Gray asked, if everyone agrees last hunting had a low harvest - which the DOW officials said is likely - if there also wasn't a drastic winter?
"You come out in 2008 and say you have (16,000) to 20,000 elk, so people said, 'Well, OK, just make up another number,'" Gray said. "People are asking, 'What, do they think, we're stupid?'"
Gray's math would make sense, de Vergie said, but de Vergie and several agency biologists do not believe the quadratic census gave a trustworthy population estimate. Instead, they are more confident in the agency's refined population models, which de Vergie said is considered the best science available for tracking elk populations.
The models put the elk population at about 20,000 to 25,000 in the Bears Ears herd in early 2007, and around 20,000 in September 2008.
However, Velarde said he is lobbying DOW Director Tom Remington to fund another quadratic census, though they generally cost about $100,000 and the state likely will make significant budget cuts in the near future.
His request goes against the opinions of some DOW biologists who feel quadratic surveys are ineffective for estimating elk populations, but he said he has a "difference of opinion."
"I think we ought to have as many tools as possible : especially in a community where we're somewhat controversial," Velarde said. "I'm not saying one way's right and one way's wrong."
After the meeting, Gray said he was encouraged by the DOW's attitude.
"I saw a real earnest desire to come communicate," he said. "They did hear us out, and I think they're working as hard as they can."
That said, the commissioner still wasn't entirely satisfied with the DOW officials' responses to his questions.
"These weren't numbers I just picked out of thin air," Gray said. "If they want to improve their image, they need to not let those numbers float out there. They need to explain what's wrong with them publicly, be willing to stand up and say maybe you were wrong."
The DOW seems to have taken the commission's feelings to heart.
County officials also criticized the agency for not scheduling a meeting in Moffat County to discuss the next five-year structure for big-game hunting.
Shortly after the meeting ended, DOW spokesman Randy Hampton said the agency hopes to arrange a Craig meeting for the last week in February. The plans aren't final, he added, but the DOW should know if a meeting will work out by Friday.