Primitive Big Game Seasons have Average to High Harvest

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With big-game muzzleloading and archery seasons finished for the year and the four rifle seasons beginning this weekend, Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) officials are optimistic that the 2003-harvest objective of 65,000 elk remains obtainable.

DOW Officials throughout the state have seen harvest rates during this year’s primitive season equal to or higher than 2002, when the state’s record harvest of 61,174 elk was set. Elk numbers remain higher than biologists would like to see in many areas of the state, but - as always - weather will be the major determining factor in harvest rates for the upcoming rifle seasons.

“We haven’t had a heavy winter on this side of the mountain since 1992-93,” said John Ellenberger, big game coordinator for the DOW. “On the Western slope elk numbers are over objective. We have plenty of elk it is just a matter of if we can walk that fine line when it comes to the weather.”

To walk the fine line mentioned by Ellenberger, the Western Slope must receive enough snow to move animals, yet not receive heavy snowfall that will impede hunters attempting to access areas harboring elk. The right amount of snow will get elk moving to lower elevations and allow hunters to spot and track elk more effectively. Hot, dry weather makes hunting more difficult since elk will typically stay in pockets of dark timber where they can stay cool and avoid hunters.

Along with high numbers of elk there is also plenty of opportunity for hunters in the form of licenses. The Colorado Wildlife Commission approved a record number of antlerless elk licenses for this season, and there are also many either sex licenses issued. The hope is that if hunters don’t kill a bull during the first few days of the hunt they will have the option to kill a cow instead of ending their hunt empty handed.

Hunters and DOW officials will be watching the weather intently hoping nature will help hunter success as rifle the majority of the state’s 300,000 big game hunters begin heading into the field Oct. 11.

Chuck Wagner, terrestrial biologist for the DOW in Monte Vista, said from what he has gathered the primitive seasons improved slightly over last year, but harvest rates were still lower than what both hunters and the DOW would have liked. While the San Luis Valley saw more moisture this year, the area remains very dry. Hunters in the valley will be pleased to hear that, with the additional moisture, the elk seemed to be scattered and there are currently no fire restrictions in effect.

Wagner also wanted to remind hunters to be aware of where they are hunting. There have been problems with hunters trespassing on private land without permission and driving ATV’s off of designated trails and in restricted areas.

“We are having some conflicts between hunters and landowners,” said Wagner. “Hunters need to understand that in Colorado it is their responsibility to know where they are and whether or not they are on private or public land.”

Other issues hunters headed to the valley need to be aware of include the regulation of wearing solid florescent orange in Colorado. The camouflage florescent orange patterns that are legal in some states do not meet the requirements in Colorado (see page 8 of the 2003 Big Game Regulations Brochure for more information). The valley also lost several meat processing businesses so hunters should be prepared to transport their animals further without risking spoilage or wait longer for their animals to be processed.

Scott Wait, terrestrial biologist for the DOW in Durango, said during both primitive seasons hunters were consistently harvesting animals throughout, but he believes the numbers should work out to be comparable to last year.

“The weather was wet for the first half of the season and than got dry and blustery towards the end of the season,” said Wait. “I would say that we had fair numbers for both archery and muzzleloader seasons.”

Wait also believes that weather will be an important factor for success for rifle hunters, but it is more critical to the number of elk killed in the last three seasons than it is in the first season.

“Historically, the weather hasn’t played as big of a roll during that first season,” said Wait. “In fact, last year we had phenomenal success rates during that first season even though it was warm and dry. I think it helps that first season hunters have the element of surprise on their side. For the other three seasons hunters don’t have that advantage, but weather can help give them an edge. ”

Regardless of the season, rifle hunters are going to have a substantial chance of being successful due to the fact that elk populations are nearly 10 percent above the objective in the southwest portion of the state. According to Wait, hunters should concentrate their efforts on the aspen and timber at between 10,000 and 11,000 feet in elevation.

“Those portions received the most summer rains,” said Wait.

Deer hunters also have a lot to look forward to. Wait said deer herds have made a nice recovery in the past several years throughout most of the region.

Hunters in the southwest portion of the state are encouraged to submit deer and elk heads for CWD testing. While the disease has not been found in the southwest portion of the state, the DOW is working to collect as much information as possible in that area of the state. For head submission sites and times, contact the Durango office at (970) 247-0855.

In the northwest portion of the state, both archery and muzzleloader hunters were pleased with the numbers of animals that they saw while hunting.

“We had a lot of archery hunters in the field that first week of the season due to the fact that Labor Day fell within that first week,” said Dan Prenzlow, area wildlife manager in Meeker. “The number of heads submitted for CWD testing are up over this time last year, which doesn’t necessarily mean that the harvest rates are up, but it may be a good indication.”

Rifle hunters can look forward to a good hunt, especially if the weather cooperates. Hunters in the northwest section of the state have a lot of opportunity due to the high numbers of either sex and cow tags available for the area. According to Prenzlow, hunters who hold either sex tags need to be aware that they still have make sure the animal they are shooting at is legal.

“Hunters killing spike bulls is a chronic problem,” said Prenzlow. “I think a lot of guys figure that because they hold an either sex tag they can shoot at the first elk they see. That is not the case. Hunters are restricted to legal, four point bulls or cows.” (Read page 31 of the 2003 Big Game Regulations Brochure for more information on antler point restrictions).

There are four locations for dropping off samples for CWD testing in northwest Colorado: the CNCC in Rangley, the DOW warehouse in Craig, the DOW office in Meeker and the DOW Office in Steamboat. All of these locations vary in hours of operation. Hunters who drew licenses for the northwest portion of the state are reminded to check the letter they were sent for hours of operation or call a DOW customer service representative for more information (303) 297-1192.

Bruce Watkins, terrestrial biologist for the DOW in Montrose, said archery and muzzleloading seasons mimicked the high harvest rates of 2002 and he expects the rifle hunters will also enjoy a good harvest, again depending upon the weather.

“We have the numbers of animals for a potential record harvest,” said Watkins. “Last year we saw an increase in the number of three year old bulls taken due to the lower harvest in 2001. There may be a slight carry over from 2001 again this year.”

Deer hunters should also be pleased with the numbers of bucks they see in the field.

“With the number of bucks, relative to the number of licenses, we expect to see a high number of nice deer taken in this area,” said Watkins.

Deer hunters in GMU’s 61 and 62 should be aware that, in the interest of collecting additional CWD data, the DOW is offering free CWD testing for deer taken in those units. While CWD has not been found in those units to date, it has been found just over the Utah-Colorado boarder. The closest place for hunters to drop off test samples is at the DOW offices in Montrose or in Grand Junction.

Hunters also are reminded to be safe during the upcoming rifle seasons. Unfortunately, there were two hunter fatalities during the primitive seasons. A bow hunter was fatally injured near Silverthorne due to a self-inflicted broadhead wound and a muzzleloader was killed by another hunter near Steamboat Springs. The incident remains under investigation by the Routt County Sheriff’s Department.