Wild(life) ride | CraigDailyPress.com

Wild(life) ride

Officials classify elk from the skies

The helicopter pilot made a hard right turn near Lay and headed north in search of elk.

“There will probably be some decent-sized groups in some of this,” wildlife biologist Darby Finley said, motioning to the rolling fields of sagebrush from the passenger seat of the helicopter.

When Finley, who works for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, spotted the first group of elk, the pilot, Tom Fischer, swooped the helicopter down so his passenger could count them and record the animals’ gender and relative age.

Not so graceful

The herd of mostly cows bounded through the snow when the helicopter approached.

Finley and Fischer were careful not to chase the elk into any fences.

“Elk aren’t the most graceful or the best jumpers,” Finley said.

If the animals jump the fence, they could get hurt or damage the fence. That doesn’t make ranchers happy, he said.

“They have enough problems with elk,” Finley said.

Finley and Fischer flew over much of Moffat County on Wednesday, counting elk and classifying them.

The classifications are the first step the division takes in calculating how many elk are in the area and where the animals are distributed. The number estimate will determine how many hunting licenses the division issues for the region.

Under fire

During a two-hour flight Wednesday morning, Finley found 25 groups of elk in the area from Moffat County Road 7 in the west to Colorado Highway 13 in the east, and from U.S. Highway 40 in the south to near Moffat County Road 5 in the north. The number of elk in a group ranged from two to more than 20.

Finley said he was surprised that he didn’t find more elk closer to Colo. 13. The snow in the area may have pushed some of the elk to the south, he said.

The elk Finley counted Wednesday were part of the Bears Ears herd, which encompasses elk from the Wyoming Border south to U.S. 40 and from the Little Snake River east to the Continental Divide.

The Division of Wildlife has come under fire in the past from landowners, the Bureau of Land Management and the State Land Board for the number of elk in Northwest Colorado.

Landowners say the elk destroy fences, eat all the small aspen trees, overgraze fields and interfere with livestock.

Accurate counts

The division’s target population for the Bears Ears herd is 12,200 elk. But according to the division’s most-recent estimates, the number is closer to 17,000 elk in the herd.

The division blames the discrepancy in the numbers on an inaccurate modeling system that was used in the early 1990s, when the objectives were set.

The division is working on getting more-accurate counts of the herds. After he compiles all the data from the flights, Finley might use the data to create a model to show where the elk are, he said. Based on the model, he might fly over some areas again to get a more accurate count of the elk herds.

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