The future of elk in Southwest Colorado is in jeopardy.
Over the past few years, herds in the region have been slowly dying off, and wildlife officials are concerned about the iconic ungulate’s ability to survive in healthy numbers in the long term.
The issue involves a mystery: About half of the elk calves born in Southwest Colorado die within six months. Of the survivors, another 15 percent perish before they turn a year old.
And researchers don’t know why.
The problem encompasses wildlife mismanagement: After record high elk populations in the 1990s, the Division of Wildlife (now Colorado Parks and Wildlife) ordered a mass hunt to cut back the animal’s numbers.
These same elk herds are now struggling to recover.
And, there are pressures from an avid user group: hunters, who in vast numbers travel to Colorado’s rich public lands. On top of killing elk, they can disrupt breeding habits and future offspring.
The challenge of understanding the forces behind this population decline comes at a time when Colorado will restructure the way it carries out big-game hunting seasons, which, among conservationists and hunters alike, presents an opportunity to help elk recover.
“I’ve been hunting in this area since 1993,” said Thomas Downing, an archery hunter and manager of Gardenswartz. “What I’ve witnessed, firsthand, is our elk herd is not in healthy shape.”
By the early 1900s, Western settlers had wiped out nearly all of the elk in North America, bringing an estimated population of 10 million down to just 40,000 animals throughout the United States and parts of Canada.
The U.S. Forest Service in 1910 estimated just 500 to 1,000 elk roamed the entire state of Colorado.
To revive the population, the state banned elk hunting until the early 1930s, and elk from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, were transplanted into 14 areas around the state, including the Hermosa Creek valley, north of Durango.
Those restoration efforts were highly successful. Colorado now boasts the largest elk population – about 280,000 animals – in North America.
In Southwest Colorado, elk herds enjoyed a prolonged period of prosperity in the 1990s, a time many hunters remember fondly.
“It was wonderful,” said David Petersen, a lifelong hunter, acclaimed naturalist and writer on hunting ethics. “And it just got better and better. Lots of elk. Lots of bulls. Elk bugling everywhere, all the time.”
But the high was short-lived.
Elk are hungry grazers, eating between 15 to 21 pounds of food a day.
In the summer, the ungulates prefer to stay in the high county, feeding on grasses, forbs and shrubs.
But in the winter, small bands tend to coalesce into large herds to spend the cold months feeding at lower elevations, in areas now occupied by farms and ranches.
Consequently, it’s not uncommon that elk cause a fair amount of damage to fields and crops and compete with livestock.
Toward the late 1990s, with elk abundant on the landscape, ranchers and farmers pressured the Division of Wildlife to reduce their numbers. And the agency responded, aggressively, by allowing more hunters to hunt.
Specifically, the Division of Wildlife issued a virtual free pass for killing cows. But killing too many females also began to kill the animal’s potential to reproduce.
At the height of the uncontrolled culling, a total of 3,500 hunting tags were issued in 1996 for the cow harvest in two herds around Durango.
This period, by contrast, is a time remembered not so fondly.
“During some private-land cow hunts, I saw elk falling dead by the dozens a day,” Petersen said. “It was an ugly slaughter. They hit the elk cows especially hard for several years.”
In the San Juan herd, which ranges from the Animas River east to Wolf Creek Pass, about 23,000 elk were cut down to about 17,300. In the Hermosa herd, a population of about 6,500 was reduced to 4,100.
Scott Wait, a senior terrestrial biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said that while these numbers don’t drastically stand out, they are significant in the complex art of big game management. And, in retrospect, many people felt the reduction effort was too aggressive.
“Maybe we were too successful, or maybe the public tolerance has changed,” Wait said. “Regardless, we did decrease elk to the point of dissatisfaction.”
The population reduction alleviated conflicts with ranchers and farmers. The problem is, the effort went too far. Now, elk herds are below their desired population levels and a new host of issues threaten their recovery.
“In the last six to eight years, we’ve tried to go back into the population growth phase,” Wait said. “But we are struggling getting the population of elk to grow again.”
Every winter, Colorado Parks and Wildlife monitors elk populations from the air by helicopter.
To determine how herds are doing, the most helpful numbers for wildlife officials are the ratios of cows to calves. If the ratio is high, populations are stable, and likely to grow. If the ratio is low, it’s a sign herds are starting to struggle.
About 15 years ago, there were anywhere from 50 to 60 calves for every 100 cows, considered a strong balance. In recent years, however, that number has fallen to about 20 calves per every 100 cows.
No one’s quite sure why these numbers have fallen, Wait said, though it does not appear to be an issue with pregnancy. About 90 percent of pregnant cows give birth to healthy calves.
To further muddle the situation, the calves are not surviving the first year of life. Again, no one’s quite sure why. Disease and attacks by predators have been ruled out as the main driving forces behind this issue, Wait said.
Northern parts of the state, for instance, have the same predators as Southwest Colorado, yet elk herds to the north are not experiencing these same struggles with calf survival.
A research project in its second year, based in the Montrose and Trinidad areas which are seeing similar issues, seeks to gain information by putting radio collars on elk calves and following them through early life.
“We are seeing significant mortality in those first six months,” Wait said. “This new technology allows us to study those months, which are the mystery, and determine a cause of death.”
For local hunters, the answer to the elk’s decline isn’t going to be found in studies or through computer analytics. One needs only to look to the backcountry for answers.
Every fall, hunters from all over the country come to Southwest Colorado to scour the San Juan Mountains for big game. But this annual ritual for hunters happens to coincide with one of the most important times of the year for elk: the rut.
The rut is when elk congregate in large numbers, and in grand fashion, male elk, called bulls, spar for the right to breed with the cows. This is when bugling, the loud call of the bull elk to attract cows, can be heard throughout the forest.
Petersen, an elk expert who has been hunting in the mountains outside Durango since 1981, said this display and its timing are delicate.
After the rut starts in mid-August, elk typically breed the last week of September or first week of October. This allows calves to be born in late May and early June, giving the newborns enough time to bulk up before having to survive the next winter.
If this process is disrupted in anyway, it could mean late birth for calves and a lower chance of surviving the winter, Petersen said.
“That’s why it’s so important that the rut happens on time,” he said.
But Petersen believes the amount of hunters in the forest in September is pressuring the elk and disrupting the rut. As a result, he’s seen breeding happen as late as November, creating hardships and risk for late-born calves the next spring.
According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife stats, nearly 13,000 hunters trekked into the San Juan Mountains to hunt the Hermosa and San Juan units last year.
“There’s an extreme, excessive hunting pressure in September,” Petersen said. “There are just too many hunters at this most delicate time of year for elk.”
Dan Parkinson, a local hunter and advocate with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said with fewer elk and more hunters, the hunting experience has greatly diminished in the San Juan Mountains.
In the old days, he said, a hunter could work hard enough and get far enough back into steep and deep country to find undisturbed elk.
“But now you get back in there, find out that there are other hunters in the area with the advent of mapping capability,” Parkinson said. “There are no secret spots out there anymore.”
A combination of forces – hunting pressures, drought, habitat loss – could be stressing the elk. However, Petersen and others believe the hunt is at least one factor wildlife managers have tangible control over.
The big question for hunters will be whether they’re willing to sacrifice some opportunities for the betterment of the herd.
Every five years, Colorado Parks and Wildlife restructures the way it manages hunting seasons in the state, such as how many hunting tags it will issue for a specific region and when the various forms of hunting (archery, rifle) begin and end.
Local hunters said this should be a time of intense self-reflection for the hunting community, and a time hunters should consider bold changes to the way the hunt is currently structured.
Downing, who manages a store that sells hunting equipment, suggested limiting the number of hunting tags issued during rifle season. And, he suggested a cap on tags for archery season, which currently is unlimited.
He said the restructuring needs to take into account all the other hunting seasons like deer, turkey, grouse, black bear, etc., which bring even more hunters into the backcountry at the same time as elk hunters.
“We need just something so we don’t have that many people in the field at one time,” he said.
Petersen agreed. He said Colorado Parks and Wildlife needs to radically reduce the number of cow tags for several years, perhaps suspending the hunt on females until the population recovers. And, he added that muzzle-loading rifle season should not happen in the middle of the rut.
“Biologically, morally this is wrong,” he said.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife did cut cow tags for rifle season by 75 percent, Wait said, but it hasn’t shown any positive effect in rebounding populations.
“If we eliminated rifle cow-elk harvest, it would probably start to increase the population a little bit faster,” Wait said. “But I question the fairness of that.”
Instead, can hunters and the public come together and agree to strike a balance between allowing the tradition of hunting while preserving the hunted? Downing thinks so.
“I think hunters will ultimately come together for the good of the herd,” he said. “At heart, we’re a bunch of conservationists, and hunters here locally know this.”
Local hunters fear that politics have infiltrated what should be an agency that promotes and preserves wildlife.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s regulations and policies are set by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission, an 11-person committee appointed by the governor that draws people from varying interests.
But many, like Petersen and Parkinson, say the commission is too heavy with people representing agriculture and industry interests, which more often than not, butt heads with wildlife interests.
And also more often than not, wildlife comes out on the losing end.
“CPW has always been cowed and bullied by ranchers and farmers who detest wildlife,” Petersen said. “For any real progress, we need to pull the wildlife commission out of the political arena. And that may need to be done through legislation.”
Of the 11-person commission, three people represent agriculture and two people represent industry interests. Two people sit on the board for the interests of the outfitting industry and one represents sportsmen.
Don Brown, Colorado’s commissioner of agriculture, also sits on the board, though he is not voting member.
There are no wildlife biologists, ecologists or experts on the board tasked with managing wildlife in the state.
Michelle Zimmerman, who represents recreational interests on the commission, agreed that sportsmen and agriculture interests have a dominant voice because, historically, those groups have always been the most involved.
Zimmerman said that as Colorado’s demographics and priorities change, so should the wildlife commission.
“I think the commission should evolve to best reflect the demographics of the state while remaining committed to the sportsmen and women and ag interests that have supported the mission of the agency for decades,” she said.
The way Colorado Parks and Wildlife is funded has also been called into question. One of the agency’s main source of funding is through the hunting tags it sells. Parkinson said that reliance makes the agency less willing to reduce those numbers.
“There needs to be discussion how to find a sustainable way to fund wildlife conservation in the state of Colorado,” he said.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s total revenue in fiscal year 2016-2017 was $241.9 million. Of that amount, $6.5 million came from 158,000 in-state residents buying hunting tags. A total of 70,400 out-of-state tags generated $40.3 million.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife will start its rescheduling of hunting seasons this winter, which will involve public comment. The new schedule would take effect in 2020.
It’s a glimmer of hope at the right time, though not a magic bullet. While restructuring the hunting season may help relieve stress on elk, the cause could very well be issues with climate change, such as drought, unforeseen disease or habitat loss.
Or a combination of all these factors, Wait said.
Gardenswartz’s Downing said another consequence of the declining herds is that business at the downtown Durango shop has been down.
“We’re starting to see a decline in hunters coming to our town because the word has spread our elk herd is struggling down here,” he said.
Downing, now 49, has hunted in Southwest Colorado since he was 7 years old. In 35 years of hunting, he has never killed a female elk.
“I don’t feel right about it,” he said. “If she doesn’t get killed, and lives to 20 years, she’s giving birth to 20 calves.”
He’s also ready to make the biggest self-sacrifice: giving up those serene autumn days in pursuit of prey.
“I can’t imagine a year in my life not elk hunting,” he said. “But with the current condition of our elk herd, I would not be upset if I wasn’t able to hunt for a year or two, so long as the long-term results of that sacrifice bring the elk herd back.”
A previous version of this story erred in saying disease and attacks by predators were considered possible factors in elk calves dying in the first year of life. Local Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists do not believe disease or predators are the driving factors of the issue.