Despite Wildfires Successful Fall Hunt Expected

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Despite scary TV images of wildfires burning in Colorado, the fires have had little impact on big game populations statewide, and the Colorado Division of Wildlife expects a successful fall hunt. Early season hunters - archers, muzzleloaders and those pursuing bighorn sheep, goats and mountain grouse - will have to endure cold camps and other fire restrictions in some areas.

Extremely dry conditions and a continuing fire danger prompted closures of national forest land and state wildlife areas across Colorado. Some of these already have reopened, and enough rain later in July and August may return conditions - and regulations - to normal before most hunters take to the field.

Hunters and fishermen, however, should be aware that restrictions may remain on what kind of stoves or fires are allowed in areas where they plan to camp. The Division's Web site at wildlife.state.co.us has several links to U.S. Forest Service and other Web sites with up-to-date information on fire closures and regulations.

Very few of Colorado's big game units actually suffered fire damage, and even the two largest fires - the Hayman Fire southwest of Denver and the Missionary Ridge Fire northeast of Durango - left large swathes of forest unburned. The Hayman Fire, for example, only affected parts of two game units, 501 and 511, and Bob Davies, the terrestrial biologist in Colorado Springs, estimates that only 60 percent of the land within the fire boundaries actually burned.

He found significant islands of habitat with plenty of riparian vegetation, and spotted three bucks in one burn area. "They appeared to be in good condition with good antler growth," he said.

The Missionary Ridge Fire did burn more prime habitat, but most elk were above it in the high alpine meadows. Big game manager John Ellenberger says the only effect that fire is likely to have is that the elk will move more quickly through burned areas when snow drives them out of the high country, putting them on private land earlier than usual.

Ellenberger also points out that most adult elk, deer and bears fled the fires unscathed, while newborns, especially fawns, may have perished. "Elk calves are followers; they move along with the herd and generally escape," said Ellenberger. "Fawns are hiders, seeking safety by taking cover. They get separated and suffer greater mortality."

Mark Lamb, wildlife manager for the South Park/Fairplay district, said he knows of only two herds of elk that were caught in the Hayman Fire, with 20 to 30 animals per herd that didn't escape the fire. And, although ground-dwelling small animals, nesting birds and small numbers of elk and deer (a tiny percentage of Colorado's overall populations), were lost, the fires will create a more healthy ecosystem of meadows, saplings and other feed for big game animals.

"In the short term, there's going to be some game displacement, and hunters are going to have to hunt in the available habitat," said Ellenberger. "But in the long term, the fires are going to benefit deer and elk populations. We could see a recovery in one to two years if we get enough moisture."

On a much bigger scale, biologists cite the Yellowstone Park fires of 1988, when scientists predicted that more than one-third of the park might lack vegetation for decades. To their surprise, grasses and wildflowers returned the first spring. Nurtured by rich ash and more sunshine, since a forest canopy no longer shaded the ground, the forage soon attracted a wide variety of wildlife back to the burn areas.

Fire, says Ron Zaccagnini, district wildlife manager in the South Platte area, brings the forest back to an earlier successional stage. In any healthy ecosystem, you need a variety of stages; different ages and types of plants and trees. The biggest variety of wildlife species can be supported in an ecosystem that has enough of each of the various stages.

"For wildlife, fire is generally part of a healthy ecosystem - it's not bad in and of itself," said Zaccagnini

Hunters worried about closures and fire restrictions should know that the Division has an extremely liberal policy on refunding license fees. Henrietta Turner, the state licensing chief, says anyone can request a refund for any reason before the opening day of any season.

Every year, the Division returns an average of $1 million in license refunds under a policy that also gives hunters the option of returning a license without receiving a refund, while restoring any preference points that were expended.

This year, the Division also is developing a contingency plan on what to do with licenses in areas that may remain closed to archers and muzzleloaders.

But few, if any, closures are expected to last into the regular rifle season, which starts Oct. 12. By then, autumn storms will have reduced the fire danger.