Craig For Leland Reinier, owner of Big Cat Taxidermy in Craig, getting home at 6 p.m. every night is an odd luxury.
“This was the first year ever I was home regularly at 6 p.m.,” he said. “Most years, I work seven days a week, and I’m usually working until 10 or 11 at night.”
Reinier said business has suffered this year because the number of hunters has dropped.
“It’s been kind of nice to have it happen because I don’t have to work the hours I’ve had to work,” he said. “But it boils down to livelihood, too.”
When there aren’t large numbers of out-of-town hunters, the community suffers, Reinier said.
“The hunting industry is so big in Craig — it hurts,” he said. “It’s obvious there won’t be as much money in the local economy.”
Reinier said there was still a large number of hunters coming through the area, just not the numbers he’s had most years, and many seem hesitant to spend money at local taxidermists.
“We’ve seen a lot of guys just cut the horns or head off instead of spending the money on taxidermy,” he said. “It is a luxury item.”
Terry Carwile, sportsman’s information specialist at the Moffat County Visitor Center, said his office also has seen less activity than in past years.
“I do think it is off a little this year,” he said. “I don’t have a hard number, but my impression is that it isn’t quite as busy in the (Visitor Center) this year as it was last year.”
Randy Hampton, Division of Wildlife spokesperson, gave two reasons for why there would be fewer hunters this year: one was the economic recession, while the other was the DOW’s decision to limit the number of hunting licenses to protect elk and deer populations.
“Some of that reduction is intentional, including in the area around Craig,” he said. “We reduced the number of licenses available because those deer and elk populations were objective.”
DOW sets objective herd populations based on an area’s carrying capacity, as well as the economic and recreational considerations of local residents.
“The Bears Ears elk population already hit objective,” Hampton said. “Because of that, we reduced the number of elk licenses available.”
Hampton said the DOW will frequently reduce the number of available licenses to protect herd health.
“With elk, we had been trying for many years to reduce the elk population around Craig at the request of landowners,” he said. “We accomplished that, and when that population finally came down, it got down to a point where we needed to reduce the number of available licenses.”
This year, overall hunting licenses were down approximately 2 percent, Hampton said.
While a 2 percent drop in the number of hunting licenses may seem small, residents said the economic effects could be significant.
The economic impact of less hunters visiting the area will surely hurt local businesses, Carwile said.
“It’s really important,” he said. “One of the things I have experienced since I’ve taken this job is that our reputation is unmatched around here. People call from all over the country for information on hunting.”
If the number of hunters in Craig doesn’t improve, Reinier said he might have to adjust his business.
“I would like to see it come back a little bit so I can keep doing what I do,” he said. “But, it might be a situation where I have to downsize a little bit.”
Reinier said the number of mule deer coming into his store dropped from 145 in 2007 to 48 in 2008 and 37 this fall.
Business for other types of animals has shrunk, as well, Reinier said.
“Our numbers are about a third of what they were in 2007 and 50 percent of 2008,” he said. “It’s way down, but I understand the tag allocations are way down and there weren’t as many hunters.”
The economy of towns dependant on hunting factors into how the DOW regulates licenses, Hampton said.
“Biologically, though, we want to make sure that that population stays at a level where it will sustain hunting in the long term,” he said. “If we continue to leave the hunting license numbers high and just sold licenses based on the fact that people would buy them and come to Craig to hunt, it wouldn’t be long before no one would come back. It would be just licenses and no animals.”
But next year is looking up, Reinier said.
“Hopefully, next year we’ll see a bump,” he said. “Maybe the times have changed. I don’t know if it’s going to be a forever thing but it’s something to consider.”
Although there are fewer hunters, those out in the field seem to have had more success finding high-quality elk and deer for trophies.
Part of the resurgence could be attributed to the harsh winter of 2007-08 which may have cleansed local herds of sick or wounded animals, Reinier said.
“I am seeing bigger and better elk,” he said. “I think the population is back in check. Next year, we will see really, really good animals.”
Hampton said because there were fewer licenses issued, hunters have generally found more success.
“The success rate is up from last year, but not substantially,” he said. “Last year was very, very low. This year, it’s up, but not to the point where it’s up to the average.”
Hampton added the DOW plans to do its best to properly manage local herds and keep Craig a hunting destination for years to come.
“Northwest Colorado is a premier hunting destination through wise management,” he said. “It is our goal to keep it that way.”