New Record Elk Harvest

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Hunters who participated in Colorado’s 2002 big game season recorded a new record elk harvest of 61,174 edging the old record of 60,120 set in 2000.

But the Division of Wildlife’s (DOW) game managers emphasized that the Colorado’s elk herd is still over the long-term population objectives in many areas. They are reminding hunters that a large number of antlerless elk licenses will again be available in 2003, and that in some cases, hunters will be able to hold more than one license so long as at least one of those licenses is an antlerless license.

The record harvest is good news for the state’s range. The grasses and forbes that sustain wildlife have been stressed by severe drought conditions while supporting a growing herd of elk for the past several years. While there are some areas in the state where elk populations are at objective, there are other areas where population levels are above the levels needed to maintain healthy range conditions.

In an effort to maintain or improve range conditions, the DOW issued a record number of antlerless elk licenses in hopes that the elk harvest would exceed 60,000.

Hunters did their part by killing more than 60,000 elk. With 229,629 elk licenses sold, it can be assumed that more than 215,000 sportsmen hunted elk last year in Colorado. The number of hunters is less than the number of licenses, due to the opportunity to buy more than one elk license in some cases. Colorado hunters enjoyed a 27 percent statewide success rate — the best in nearly three decades — but work remains to be done if the state’s range is to remain in good condition.

“The drought conditions that have persisted through the past couple of years have caused wildlife managers to reassess our harvest and herd objectives for elk,” said Rick Kahn, terrestrial section’s field management supervisor for the DOW. “There may well be less habitat and food available now than 3 years ago. This can result in more conflicts with private land, more conflicts between species such as elk and mule deer and a potential reduction in the overall condition of the animals.

“We need to maintain our cow harvests in a number of units and in some herds increase cow harvest in order to prevent long-term damage to the land base,” Kahn said.

The White River National Forest elk herd is one example because the elk populations has remained well above the DOW’s population objective. The herd occupies game management units (GMU’s) 11, 12, 13, 23, 24, 25, 26, 33, 34, 133, 211 and 231 in northwestern Colorado.

Hunters killed 12,170 elk in these GMU’s and averaged a 31 percent success rate, well above average. Hunters in GMU’s 211 and 13 enjoyed phenomenal success rates of 51 percent and 54 percent respectively. These numbers include all manners of take and all seasons valid in the area. Of the 61,000 plus elk harvested in 2002, 27 percent came from these GMU’s meaning harvest objectives for this area were met for the first time in several years.

There were 7,038 elk killed in the GMU’s north of Craig (3, 301, 4, 5, 214 and 14). Hunters had an average 39 percent success rate in these GMU’s with 50 percent of the hunters in GMU 441 being successful.

Ron Velarde, northwest regional manager for the DOW, says that these harvest numbers demonstrate the DOW’s ability to manage elk in these areas that are over objective.

“We’re excited about it,” Velarde said. “We proved we can harvest elk and meet harvest objectives. We were asked to think outside of the box and develop some tools that would get us to harvest objectives, and that was accomplished. I see this only getting better in the future as we refine and add to these tools.”

Hunters killed 1,630 elk and were successful on average 36 percent of the time in GMU’s 61 and 62, south of Grand Junction. GMU’s 66 and 67, south of Gunnison provided 4,437 elk for hunters and a 40 percent success rate.

The continuing need to reduce elk numbers in certain areas of the state will mean additional opportunities for hunters. Last year, the price of nonresident antlerless elk licenses was reduced significantly and other regulations were changed in an effort to reduce elk herds in specific areas of the state. Even more opportunities will be available for hunters this year as the DOW streamlines and adds to the management practices that proved successful last season.

“We may have to evaluate our methods for distributing cow licenses to make sure we can maintain the needed harvest in spite of weather, economic factors and private land access,” Kahn said. “These are conditions the DOW does not control. We are experimenting with over-the-counter antlerless elk licenses in two areas this fall to evaluate this tool. We’re also continuing our efforts to maximize early and late seasons to harvest elk. The DOW needs to better understand why hunters hunt antlerless elk, what motivates them and what incentives are needed to make the most of this critical management tool.”

According to Kahn, keeping harvest rates high enough to maintain hunting an effective wildlife management tool takes cooperation from a number of groups — and Mother Nature has a say also. None of these variables helped with the 2001 elk harvest. Poor economic factors, poor weather conditions for hunting and an increase in the cost of licenses led to fewer than 200,000 hunters taking only 42,630 for a 21 percent success rate in 2001.

“It take a significant effort from the DOW, private land owners, hunters and the federal land management agencies to maintain a harvest of more than 60,000 elk,” Kahn said. “It also requires some luck in terms of weather — it can’t be too hot and dry and there can’t get too much snow early in the season.”

Deer hunters were successful in 2002 also with more than 80,000 hunters killing more than 35,000 deer for a success rate of 44 percent. There were 32,634 deer taken in 2001.