A series of public meetings in coming weeks will look at how to handle Southwest Colorado’s declining and ailing elk herd populations.
Every 10 years or so, Colorado Parks and Wildlife revises its management plans for big game wildlife across the state. This year, the agency will look at its plan for elk in Southwest Colorado, which hasn’t been updated in more than a decade.
The main goal, said Brad Weinmeister, a CPW biologist, is for the agency – with public input – to set population objectives for elk, then adjust management practices, such as how many hunting tags are issued each year.
In Colorado, hunters are the main drivers of controlling wildlife numbers. If a region of the state wants to lower elk numbers, for instance, CPW will increase the number of available tags, Weinmeister said.
In Southwest Colorado, it’s likely the opposite will occur.
Here, elk populations have declined in recent years. Weinmeister said he expects the public process to call for bolstering their numbers, at the cost of hunting opportunities.
Still, that might not solve the problem.
The decline has been attributed to high calf mortality: About half the elk calves born in Southwest Colorado die within six months, and an additional 15% die before they reach a year old.
In the absence of one clear cause such as disease – which was ruled out – wildlife officials don’t know what’s driving the deaths.
Weinmeister said CPW is trying to determine why calves have died at high rates in study areas around Montrose and Trinidad. But research has been slow because expandable radio collars put on the calves keep falling off.
“We’re getting a little better,” he said. “But it’s not happening as fast as we want.”
In the meantime, wildlife officials are looking at other possible causes of the decline.
Recently, CPW limited tags for archery hunters. Whereas tags used to be unlimited, Weinmeister now may lower or raise the number of hunting tags based on conditions on the ground.
Weinmeister said the new process reduces the number of elk killed each year by hunters and decreases the number of hunters who disrupt breeding habits.
Each year, about 13,000 hunters trek into the San Juan Mountains to hunt the Hermosa and San Juan units, which are home to an estimated 26,000 elk.
“From the hunters I talk to, most are willing to make that sacrifice,” Weinmeister said.
CPW also is looking for ways to offset the impact of habitat loss. As Colorado’s population grows and development reaches rural areas, elk lose areas to thrive. And on top of that, recreation is encroaching into the last wild places.
“When you add all this up together, we’re losing a lot of habitat each year,” Weinmeister said. “And it’s hard to put more animals on the landscape when they have less places to live.”
And there are the factors involving climate, such as drought, which has plagued Southwest Colorado.
“It’s not an easy solution by any means,” he said.