Big Game Harvest Down

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Unseasonably mild weather and low hunter participation due to the economic recession led to a weak Colorado elk harvest in the 2001 season. Hunters harvested 42,630 elk last year, compared with 2000's record harvest of 60,120. The deer harvest also was down, although not as sharply. There were 32,634 deer taken in 2001, compared with 37,908 in 2000.

The nearly 200,000 elk hunters took 19,188 bulls and 23,432 antlerless elk for a 21 percent success rate, down 3 percent from 2000. Other than in 2000, 2001's success rate was the highest since 1996, when the rate was 24 percent. The success rate stayed high because of more than 40,000 fewer hunters pursuing elk.

"Without enough snow to push animals down from the high country, the weather definitely had an effect on success rates in 2001," said John Ellenberger, the Division of Wildlife's big game coordinator. "The 2000 season was just about ideal for hunting. We had enough snow to provide for tracking animals, and in some cases to concentrate them. It was cold enough that conditions weren't muddy and sloppy, and hunters were able to get around in spite of the deep snow. That made it possible for hunters and animals to get together, which facilitated the harvest."

Ellenberger pointed out that last year, with virtually no snow, it was very dry and there was no concentration of animals.

"They were scattered from high to low elevations," said Ellenberger. "Also, because there wasn't any snow and it was dusty and dry, tracking conditions were very poor. Hunters couldn't tell if tracks were 12 hours or five days old."

Additionally, fewer hunters visited Colorado in 2001 because of uncertainty and travel problems stemming from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the economic recession and a hike in nonresident elk fees. While the Division issued approximately 109,000 antlerless licenses for 2001 - the most ever to help control the state's burgeoning herd - the state saw about 40 percent fewer nonresident big game hunters from previous seasons, and 6,000 antlerless elk licenses weren't even sold.

"The events of 9-11 really triggered what appeared to be a declining turn in the economy," Ellenberger said. "People were concerned about what was going on and what was going to happen, and some people were losing their jobs. So some hunters just decided to stay home."

Also, Colorado raised its nonresident bull and cow licenses to $450 in 2001 from $250 because the fee was one of the lowest of Western states.

"Colorado was the default hunting area for the nonresident hunter," Ellenberger said. "Most other big-game hunting states in the West had much higher licenses fees than Colorado and have a cap on nonresident participation."

But for the 2002 season, the cow license price will drop back to $250 to encourage nonresident hunters to come back and to take a cow. Nonresident bull licenses won't be reduced, and will be $470 to keep up with inflation.

Because the elk harvest was low last year in virtually every area of the state, Colorado's herd is "substantially over-objective," Ellenberger said. "We estimate the post-hunt population is around 250,000, and our objective is about 188,000."

Hunting is the primary tool used to maintain the health of the elk herd and its habitat, preventing damage to winter range during drought or severe winters.

"We didn't make any progress in controlling the elk population, in fact we probably lost ground," Ellenberger said. "We'll issue as many, probably more, licenses this year than we did last year."

Hunters will be allowed to purchase up to two elk licenses over much of the Western Slope as long as one is an antlerless license, meaning a hunter could take a bull and a cow elk or two cows.

Last year's low harvest should be encouraging to sportspeople who plan to hunt in Colorado this season.

"Every year that we have a low harvest like we had in 2001, usually it's a good hunting season the following year if we get good weather - it's all predicated on that," Ellenberger said. "Because there wasn't the harvest that we would have liked, hunters are likely to see more bulls than they did last year, and 3-year-old bulls that are a little bit bigger this year." Usually bulls are taken in greater numbers than cows, but 2001 was an exception.

For other big game, hunters harvested 102 moose in 2001, the most ever because the Division more than doubled the past number of licenses to 131, for an 84 percent success rate. Ellenberger said moose hunters typically have a high success rate, and weather isn't much of a factor.

Moose were introduced to the state in 1978, and now Colorado's moose population is about 1,150 as a result of those introductions.

There were 74,553 deer hunters in 2001, who took 25,248 bucks and 6,386 antlerless deer for a 42 percent success rate, down 3 percent from last year but still one of the highest since 1982.

"We had lower participation across the board in deer hunting last year, but our success rate stayed almost the same," Ellenberger said.

Unlike elk, Colorado's deer population is below wildlife management objectives. "Our objective, post-hunt 2000, was 629,000, and we had 548,000," Ellenberger said. "This year we'll probably be a little higher than that."

Ellenberger added that the state's deer herd appears to be recovering after a period of decline in the late 1990s. The Division found many factors that contributed to the decline, such as habitat change and loss due to development, disease and competition with elk and livestock for food. Deer are also more vulnerable to severe winter conditions than elk because of their smaller bodies.

"There doesn't seem to be one smoking gun," Ellenberger said of the deer herd's decline. "1999 was the first year we went to totally limited licenses for all deer hunting statewide, and we cut deer hunting dramatically at that time to 105,000 licenses from 142,000. We've continued to reduce licenses a little bit in subsequent years, and even though the herd is below objective, it seems to be responding, and in some areas seems to be doing well."

The 10,523 pronghorn antelope hunters took 6,417, down from 7,564 in 2000, for a 61 percent success rate, the lowest since 1985.