Robust Elk License Sales Offset Poor Hunting Conditions

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Poor hunting conditions brought on by warm, dry weather during Colorado’s 2003 big game seasons were offset by near-record elk license sales and good late-season success, resulting in the third largest elk harvest in state history.

Hunters killed 57,300 elk during the 2003 season compared to 61,200 in 2002. The dip was most notable during the four regular rifle seasons, with the regular-season harvest declining 15 percent, down from 42,200 in 2002 to 36,100 in 2003. For their part, archery hunters killed 4,700 elk in 2003, a 22 percent increase over the previous year. Hunters with late-season licenses or licenses for special hunts—such as the Ranching for Wildlife program—harvested 13,800 elk, or 12 percent more in 2003 than in 2002.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) issued nearly 247,000 elk licenses last year, an increase of 17,000 from the previous year. The 2003 total was the most since the record year of 1998, when hunters purchased 254,000 elk licenses. The success ratio dipped from 27 percent in 2002 to a still-respectable 23 percent in 2003.

Meanwhile, the deer harvest increased slightly from 36,100 in 2002 to 37,600 in 2003. The success ratio for deer hunters fell slightly from 45 percent in 2002 to 43 percent last year. The agency sold more than 88,000 deer licenses, the most in five years.

“While we didn’t reach our harvest objective of 65,000 elk, hunters harvested more than we anticipated last fall when the hunting conditions appeared to be so unfavorable,” said John Ellenberger, the DOW’s big game manager.

“And the success for late-season hunts is important because those hunts are designed to reduce elk numbers or change elk distribution in problem areas,” Ellenberger explained.

Colorado has more than 270,000 elk based on the DOW’s post-hunt estimates, the most of any state in the United States or province in Canada.

The recovery of Colorado’s elk herd is one of the 20th century’s outstanding conservation success stories. Wildlife officials estimate there were fewer than 2,000 elk left in Colorado a century ago, the result of market hunting and habitat loss that occurred during the settlement of the West.

In areas where the elk population is above the long-term objective, the DOW issued additional antlerless licenses to help reduce the size of the herds.

“Having a large elk harvest for the third time in the last four years validates the Division’s efforts to reduce the elk population, particularly in those areas where our long-term objectives have not been met,” said Ron Velarde, the DOW’s northwest regional manager. “We recognize the concerns that ranchers and farmers have expressed about the size of the elk herds in some areas and these harvest numbers demonstrate that we are aggressively working to meet our herd objectives.”

Hunters killed more than 5,300 pronghorn antelope, a reduction of nearly 700 from the 2002 total of 6,000. The annual pronghorn harvest has fallen steadily for the past seven years, largely due the persistent drought that has gripped Colorado and much of the U.S. West.