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Hold ‘em or fold ‘em
Many of you have hunted the same units for several years and have noticed changes in the elk and deer numbers. In some cases, the animals are still “there”, but not in the same numbers in the same drainages you traditionally hunt. In other cases, the population has been severely reduced, sometimes due to intentional or accidental management decisions, other times due to factors out of our control. Populations fluctuate due to natural variables, but wildlife managers usually try to keep them steady around an objective.
Many hunters distrust the population surveys that the Colorado Division of Wildlife produces. But it’s what they use, and what is going to dictate their management decisions. So if you’ve been unhappy with the deer or elk hunting lately, it pays to look at the current population in relation to the objectives. If that population doesn’t appear to have changed much, you may want to consider doing some more research and scouting to see what has changed in other parts of the unit. Did the Forest Service close a road, creating a new sanctuary? Was there a fire in a neighboring drainage, producing younger, more palatable forage? How long has it been since the last mechanical or natural disturbance in your area? Maybe the plants have become older and tougher where you hunt. Maybe the trees are now thicker, with less light hitting the soil, shading out the more desirable forbs. Did a spring quit running? Has the livestock management changed? What about timber management? Did the rancher whose fields that the elk or deer used to raid change crops, get a new outfitter or quit outfitting? Any of these things and many more can change the distribution of game in your area without changing the population. Most hunters hunt just a small percentage of the total area available in a unit, so it pays to have a little better perspective regarding the population and habitat changes (if any) in that unit.
Nature is never static. Nothing stays the same; plants grow, animals reproduce, snow storms wipe out deer populations, fires set back succession of plant species. Add in human interaction with nature and you have more changes. Thankfully, we can arm ourselves with information and monitor or anticipate these changes, which may affect our decision making processes. Even if the habitat hasn’t changed much, rancher and farmer attitudes toward wildlife might, putting pressure on the Division of Wildlife to allow a larger antlerless harvest. We hunters tend to abhor change, but wishing things would stay the same will not make it so.
So what might make you decide whether to look for greener pastures or whether stick it out? Take a look at where the population is in relation to objectives. This won’t tell you anything about the game distribution, but it should tell you whether the wildlife managers will try to let it build back up to the numbers that you once saw. If so, you ought to consider sticking it out. Hunting during those leaner years, while frustrating, will make you more knowledgeable about the area. You might also consider a temporary move to different ground with the intention to return when things get a little better. But if you’re unhappy with the numbers and it appears that the wildlife managers intend to either keep the numbers at their present level, or worse yet, intend to further reduce it, it’s probably time to consider folding up shop in that unit.
Most state game departments do not produce nearly the quantity or quality of information that the Colorado Division of Wildlife produces for public consumption. Some states don’t do population estimates, many do not have population objectives. So I can’t be of much help outside of Colorado, but the following is a list of DAUs whose glory days may be returning, and whose sun has set. It’s not a complete list, just some highlights and doesn’t include those who are on their way down due to being way over objective (ripe units for those seeking new ground while your old unit builds back up). I don’t have complete population data prior to 2004, so this will be more about recent history.
The winter of 2007-2008 really worked over the deer herds in Colorado, so many of these units show similar patterns in their populations: near objective, then a precipitous drop that didn’t show up until after the 2008 post hunt survey. For other units, the winter compounded an intentional decline. Deer populations also fluctuate much more than elk, as they tend to breed at an earlier age and often producing twins and triplets, but are much more vulnerable to smaller predators and the weather.
The Flat Tops, units 11,12,13,22,23,24,211,131,231: This deer population has seen its glory days and it’s not coming back any time soon. In 2005, this herd was over 105,000 animals, representing nearly 18% of Colorado’s deer population in just one herd. It was also 50% over objective. Combined with lots of tags, and some harsh winters, the population plummeted to its low of 61,450 this past year. The DOW intends to let the population build back up towards the objective, but it will probably never number near 100,000 animals again.
The Uncompahgre Plateau, units 61,62: In 2006, the Uncompahgre deer herd was nearly 40,000 animals. After the harsh 2007 winter, whose damage wasn’t fully realized until 2008, this deer herd now stands at less than 22,000. It will come back, but it will take time. Antlerless tags have been reduced by 66% for 2010, but the DOW projects very little population gain for next year. Even at a 20% growth rate, which assumes almost no doe harvest and mild weather, it will be no less than 3 years before the population can get close to the 36,000 deer objective. If this was your deer hot spot, you might consider hunting somewhere else for a few years.
Poudre Canyon, units 7,8,9,19,191: This has always been a popular area, but the proximity to Colorado State University and the prevalence of Chronic Wasting Disease made it the target of an experiment to find out to what degree CWD is density dependent. Reducing the population from a high of 13,900 in 1993 to just 5,700 in 2007 with a tremendous number of doe tags was intentional. If you moved due to the poor recent hunting, I can’t blame you, but it is on the way back up and quickly. The new population objective is 12,000, and the past two years have shown significant gains, which are projected to continue beyond the present 8,700 and 9,300 in 2010. If you’ve left, don’t come back yet, because it’s still shy of the early 90s. But it should be close to peaking by 2012 or 2013.
Gunnison- Powderhorn, Cimarron, West Elk and Taylor Park-units 54,55,551,64,65,66,67: The area around Gunnison received the most publicity during the severe storms and emergency winter feeding operation of 2007 and 2008, but losses were much more widespread. Each of these DAUs were significantly over objective in the mid 2000s, and had been for many years. Combined with the overpopulated elk outstripping the winter range and able to outcompete deer for precious forage, the area was primed for a fall. While the DOW attempted to compensate for the losses during the following hunting season by cutting tags in half, the deer population was still down by more than 8,000 in the 2008 post hunt survey. This isn’t a deer and history lesson, so which areas are coming back, and which ones aren’t? The Powderhorn units (66,67) will not be coming back to their high of the early 90s and early 2000s. They were way over objective, so the harsh winter only helped the management goal, and the herd is now at objective. It’s a quality managed deer unit, so the buck ratio is going to be kept high, but don’t expect to see nearly as many bucks as you once did. The Cimarron units (64,65) will be coming back, although they have continued to decline since the major winter die off. Presently these units are at their low of 8400 deer, down from nearly 15,000 in 2006. The objective is 13,500 and doe tags have been completely eliminated for 2010. The West Elk (54) and Taylor Park (55,551) units will be on the rise also, but they will not be near their previous highs in the early and mid 2000s. Unit 54 had 9200 deer and was 40% over the objective of 6500 back in 2004 but has since plummeted to about 4,000 and hasn’t grown at all since that harsh winter. This is a unit that will take a while just to return to objective, which it had previously exceeded since the 80s, so don’t expect it to ever return to what you had been used to. The Taylor Park units were nearly twice their objective of 6,500 in the early 2000s, and are now presently struggling to break the 4,000 deer mark. You might want to give either of these last two DAUs 5 or 6 years before considering them again (and you’ll need nearly that many preference points to hunt them anyway).
State Bridge, units 15,35,36,45: In 2006, the deer herd exceeded 24,000, with an objective of 21,000 and was among the top deer densities in the state. Harsh winters combined with generous doe quotas and a reduced population objective (several habitat, disease and human issues) knocked the population down to a low of less than 14,000 in 2008. The new objective is 15,000 and the present population is hovering around there at this time. This is a population that will not return to the tremendous densities of the recent past. It’s still among the higher densities in the state, but it will not be going back to what it once was in the 1980s and early to mid 2000s.
Glade Park, unit 40: This herd has been below objective for over 30 years. Even with virtually no doe harvest, the unit has stagnated, despite good fawn production. The lack of a population increase points to a probable winter range habitat problem, which is likely compounded by an overpopulated elk herd in the area. It’s tough to make a call on this unit, as the population is roughly half the 12,000 deer objective and has been for some time. The population has declined from its previous high in the mid to late 80s of rougly 13,000 deer, but the objective at that time was 16,000 deer. Given that herd hasn’t grown in 20 years, despite management efforts, I see no reason to believe it will again without major habitat improvements or maybe a decline in the elk population.
Grand Mesa, North units 41,42,421 and South units 52,411,521- The north herd has always been about 3 times as large as the south herd. In the 1980s, this herd was over 40,000 deer. Presently, it stands at just 20,000, significantly below the 29,000 deer the DOW was managing for. The herd was just over objective prior to the 2007 winter, which takes most of the blame for the present population. However, this herd is not coming back. The population objective was just reduced to a maximum of 23,000 due to the Division’s feeling that closer to 30,000 would be unsustainable with increased energy development and decreased winter range quantity and quality. The Southern Grand Mesa herd was hardly affected by the winter of 2007. Previously the herd had been at the objective of 10,500, but the herd has since declined by 15% in 2009 as the deadly combination of drought and harsh local winter conditions showed a larger than expected decrease this past year. This herd should come back, but it was never anything like the North Grand Mesa herd. If you enjoyed the recent deer hunting here, you might give it two years before coming back.
Bear’s Ears, units 3,301,4,441,5,14,214: In 2004, this deer herd numbered nearly 48,000. Attempts to bring the herd back under control with liberal a doe quota was slowly working. But once again, the winter of 2007, combined with lots of doe tags, knocked the population down below 36,000 this past year. The objective had been 37,000, so doe tags are being reduced by over 50% this year. It’s unlikely this herd will push 50,000 again in the near future. There’s still a lot of deer, but it won’t be like it was just 6 years ago.
Aspen, Eagle, Glenwood-units 43,47, 471, unit 44 and 444- The 2007 winter in Gunnison received the most publicity, but that same winter took a tremendous toll on the deer populations in these units. Most dramatic was south of Eagle in unit 44. This herd is 80% lower than what it was in 2006! The 2006 post hunt population was over 10,000 animals, 30% over the objective of 7,000. The herd has plummeted to less than 2,000 animals according the 2009 post hunt survey. It is going to be a looooooong time, if ever, for this population to return even to objective. There have been virtually no doe tags issued for several years, but the population has not rebounded. While not exactly cheery news, the 50% decline in unit 444 from the 2004 highs will likely rebound much sooner. The population is presently about 20% below the objective of 5300 deer, but should bounce back quickly. In two years, the population in 444 probably won’t be pushing 7,000 like it was in 2004, but should be closer to objective by 2011 or 2012, barring another disastrous winter. The Aspen units, 43,47,471, have lost over 65% of their deer since 2006. The 2006 high of 16,400 deer was 50% over objective, bottomed out in 2008 at just 5,770 and has since rebounded slightly to about 6,400. This unit will not see anywhere near the numbers of the mid 2000s anytime soon. It will recover, but not to the level you may have been used to.
Delores, units 70,71,711- Yet another huge deer herd that has lost nearly 40% of the herd from recent highs. While slightly over the 34,000 deer objective in 2006 at 36,000 deer, this herd now stands at just 22,000. However, and I’m not one to armchair quarterback normally, but I do not understand the mere 25% reduction in doe tags and projected 2010 population decline to just 19,000 animals. I don’t hunt there, so it’s not my problem, but if you do, you might deer hunt somewhere else for a few years. Keep an eye on what the DOW does so you can time your return, but it’s hard to project when that might be given the current tag quotas and projected declines. I actually don’t believe the population will continue to decline into the 19,000 range with the 800 doe tags being issued, but for some reason the DOW’s population model expects it to. Tread carefully here. It could be at objective in 4 years, or it may never return.
Saguache, units 68,681- In the early 2000s the population was being managed for 8,500 deer and the population was just under 9,000. The herd management plan describes the reintroduction of doe tags in 2006 and 2007 as “erroneous”, when the DOW falsely believed it was over objective. To put it mildly, the deer herd was decimated, and fell to just 3,700 animals. The new objective is just 4-5,000 animals and the population is there at the present time. This herd will not be returning to the mediocre numbers it enjoyed between the 1960s and early 2000s. It is now half of that previous population and will be staying there, apparently with local public support.
Elk present different management challenges than deer. It’s easy to build the population up by simply reducing the antlerless tags, as the Colorado winters generally aren’t harsh enough to hurt them, and the large predators aren’t present. But reducing an elk population is much more difficult, as during the early seasons they often inhabit difficult to access wilderness areas, and flee to private refuges when the guns start going off. So, it stands to reason that in Colorado, there are very few populations significantly below objective that will be allowed to grow. Instead this is a list of units that have declined in recent years, and will not be allowed to grow back to the numbers you were once accustomed to.
Units 35,36 State Bridge/Eagle’s Nest: In 2004, the elk population exceeded 6,600 animals. However, the objective was just 2,950 and presently stands at 3700. So, not only will this population not come near the highs seen in the middle of the last decade, the wildlife managers intend to continue the heavy cow harvests and late season hunts until the population is less than 50% of what you had come to expect 6 years ago. It’s time to move on, the glory days are gone.
Bear’s Ears, units 3,301,4,441,5,14,214: The area around Craig had seen some fantastic elk hunting in recent years. Good public access at higher elevations with no wilderness, and enough BLM and state lands at lower elevation to take advantage of a large migratory herd made this a popular unit. The elk herd numbered nearly 26,000 in 2006, but has since been hammered with either sex and antlerless tags. The winter of 2007 contributed to the decline by pushing the elk closer too close to the travel corridors along Highways 13 and 40, denting cars and trucks in addition to the elk population. The herd now numbers around 17,000 and is projected to decline into the 15,000 range, with the objective being 16,500. I’m not convinced they will hit 15,500 elk projection in the 2010 post hunt survey, as the DOW has cut the 1st season cow tags in half for the second straight year. There are still good numbers, but if you were hoping the population would build back up to the mid 20,000 range again; it might be time to move on. Tags have become much more difficult to get this area as demand has not fallen off yet. Folks I hunt with used to rely leftover 1st season cow tags, but they have completely dried up.
Poudre Canyon, units 7,8,9,19,191: Just 10 years ago, the elk population was over 6,000 animals and well over the population objective of 3,300. A tremendous surge in cow tags, plus late season hunting as part of the CWD monitoring project knocked the population down towards the objective by 2008. There has been a slight increase in the objective to about 4,200, but the present population is just 3,800, so the increase will not be particularly noticeable. If you enjoyed the hunting here in the late 90s and early 2000s, the elk numbers will not return in the foreseeable future. It’s probably time to move on.
Big Thompson/Estes, unit 20: This population will not be coming back to the recent highs in the middle of the past decade. Well over 4,000 elk were present with an objective of 2,400. Several late season hunts were instituted, but the real problem was the Rocky Mountain National Park elk never left their sanctuary of the Park or town of Estes. Over 200 cow tags were issued in each of 3 late seasons, and the local herds on National Forest lands were annihilated. Additional culling in the park by government personnel and volunteers has helped knock the population below objective to around 2,100 elk. The attempt to solve the Park’s population problem with hunting on National Forest lands solved nothing, and now the public land hunting is the worst it has been in years. And since there are very few cows left on the public land, it won’t be getting much better unless the distribution of the elk herds change.
San Juans, units 75,751,77,771,78: We’ll end with some good news. This population had been near the objective of 19,000 for several years, but a series of larger than expected harvested knocked the population down from 20,000 to around 17,000 recently. The change may not be drastic, but can be quite noticeable, as the herds that were hit were mostly led by cows on public lands. The DOW has pulled back slightly on the cow tags for this coming year and is trying to hit the objective with slow growth due to the reluctance of surpassing 19,000. So if you noticed fewer elk the past few years here, they will be back in a couple years. Give it three years.
I see the hesitance to leave old stomping grounds all the time. Traditions, proximity and local knowledge all play a role in why some continue to return to places even after they know they will never produce like the “good old days” or even just 5 years ago. As a unit-hopper, rarely hunting the same place twice, I know full well the difficulties and expenses in scouting new country. But you can approach these new places with an optimistic attitude, rather than stay put and grouch about the fact that the deer or elk are no longer present in the numbers you once knew. If you’re willing to expand your horizons, there is still a lot of good elk and deer hunting to be had. And if you aren’t willing to leave your spot, well, that’s your choice too. But at least consider re-scouting it to find whatever hot spots are left. If you believe that your pasture is greenest, that’s great, but it doesn’t hurt to take a look around.
With experience comes wisdom, but not all of it may apply to a new location. So weigh the consequences of leaving your spot for somewhere new. Despite the decline in game numbers in your area, are you still successful? How much do you really care about success, and how attached are you to the memories of your old camp? Is your wife going to ban further hunting trips if you don’t come home with game soon? How confident are you in your abilities to find elk or deer in new places? These are just some of the questions you might ask yourself before folding up or holding on.