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The first and second big game rifle seasons are over, and the third and fourth seasons are fast approaching, starting on Nov. 2 and 13, respectively.
Elk tags were limited to 750 during the first season, with tags being drawn from a pool of applicants. During the second season, bull elk tags were available over the counter from license agents. The same will happen during the third season, and fourth season elk tags will again be limited.
Each year, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) works to maintain healthy wildlife populations based on management goals while striking a balance between providing quality hunting experiences for individuals and general hunting success. The first and fourth seasons are restricted primarily to offer hunters with drawn tags a higher quality hunting experience resulting from less overall hunting pressure. Providing these opportunities is an effort to keep people engaged during hunting season and allow hunters to come to Colorado and enjoy themselves.
Tag limits are evaluated and set each year by the CPW commission based on recommended tag numbers produced by local wildlife officers and managers each March. Recommendations are based on management objectives set during public meetings and counts of wintering herds carried out by wildlife officers in December and January. Decisions to limit or not to limit tags in order to manage wildlife populations are multifaceted and involve analysis of complicated trends, consideration of the interests of many invested parties, and a great deal of intuition, explained public information officer Joe Lewandowski with the CPW in Durango.
Although official harvest numbers and statistics will not be available until next February, The SUN spoke with local wildlife officer Mike Reid in order to get an idea of the hunting successes and challenges this season.
Reid explained that wildlife officers in this area monitor a single Data Analysis Unit (DAU) that encompasses and stretches between Pagosa Springs and Durango. This DAU contains five Game Management Units (GMU). Although this DAU is managed as a single elk herd, data is effected by wildlife movement out of the DAU jurisdiction across the Continental Divide, into New Mexico and onto tribal lands. Wildlife officers in this area do not collect data on animals that have moved to these areas.
Reid explained that more robust wildlife and harvest data sets are produced when collecting data on a larger scale, resulting in the production of more powerful statistical management tools. This is one reason, Reid explained, that elk herds in a specified DAU are analyzed as a single herd. The current objective for elk herd population in this area is between 17,000 and 21,000 animals — the current estimated population is at the low end of this objective.
Deer licenses in the DAU between Pagosa and Durango are limited in all rifle seasons. There are no deer tags during the first season. This is the result of CPW working to restrict hunter pressure on deer herds and grow populations. Currently, area deer herd population is estimated at 21,000, at the low end of the objective population range, which extends up to 27,000. Although this number is lower than the target, the deer population is fairly stable, according to Lewandowski.
Development on winter range also threatens deer populations. Deer can lose up to 30-40 percent of their body weight in winter. As a result, loss of winter range has an amplified effect on area deer herds compared to elk, which are hardier and less dependent on low elevation winter range. Development and the subsequent loss of forage and browse in these areas has been an ongoing problem in Colorado for many years.
According to Reid, the first rifle season harvest appeared similar to last year, especially because it is limited, while pressure during the second season seemed depressed. Lewandowski also commented that many archers were successful earlier this season due to wet weather and snow that made animals easier to track. He also explained that there is rarely large variation from year to year in harvest numbers and that one of the primary drivers of harvest success is the weather. Wet, cold, snowy weather enables more success, while warmer temperatures often pose more tracking and hunting challenges. Weather events and season dates vary from year to year.
The SUN also spoke with Bernie Schuchart, the game processor at The Buck Stops Here, to get a different perspective on the harvest. Schuchart commented that hunter numbers seemed down, describing the season to be about average for a regular season based on the animals he got in.
“It’s been a ho-hum kind of season,” said Schuchart, “nothing to write home about.” Schuchart hopes that business will pick up in the third season with the approach of colder weather.
Again, official harvest numbers will not be available until February. The information provided and observations made by wildlife officers and game processors above are educated guesses about this year’s hunting season.