“Too many uncontrollables”: From coronavirus to wildfires, Colorado’s hunting season brings a slew of uncertainties

While the long-term outlook for wildlife could benefit from the reshaping of the forest, less habitat plus more hunters equals a problem.

Libby O'Neall and Robert Tann / Colorado Sun
A cow elk wanders across basketball courts near the Estes Park YMCA, on Oct. 16, 2020 with the Cameron Peak fire billowing smoke in the distance.

Earl Oesterling first noticed the smoke plumes of the Cameron Peak fire near his business, Ivory & Antler Outfitters, in mid-August. He knew that signaled trouble for hunting even beyond the crowds and the drought that already beset the area.

The Jackson County outfitter, located about 20 miles west of what became a massive wildfire only recently contained, had already contended with unpredictable wildlife movement due to Colorado’s dry weather as well as an influx of outdoor recreators amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Where you would normally have large herds of elk up here together, there’s smaller groups of elk by a lot,” Oesterling said.

Oesterling and other owners of outdoor recreation businesses are facing crises like they’ve never seen before. An increase in outdoor use because of the pandemic has brought more customers — and that, coupled with drought and land closure brought on by wildfires, has put additional pressure on wildlife.

“We’ve definitely seen a lot of changes in the animals’ behaviors,” he said. “I can’t tell you what that will do for future operations because in this business it’s all about the here and now. … There’s too many uncontrollables.”

The Cameron Peak fire, the largest in the state’s recorded history at over 200,000 acres, has severely inhibited land access in Jackson and Larimer counties, squeezing hunting groups closer together and forcing animals to flee. In the past, herds of 50 to 100 elk were common. Now, Oesterling said, you’ll mostly see groups of only five to 25, because smaller herds make it easier for the animals to find forage and water.

To read the rest of the Colorado Sun article, click here.

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