OUT: Sunday Column October 12, 2008

Elk management has more bulls, fewer overall elk

First things first. Wednesday’s story on scuba diving contained a horrible misquote. Cindy Stanfield of The Travel Connection and Scubaventures in Grand Junction never said a wetsuit cost $2,000. She said a beginning scuba diver can get a wetsuit and all the necessary equipment for diving, including but not limited to mask, fins, regulator and dive computers, for up to $2,000, not simply the wetsuit alone.

Stanfield said wetsuits can be purchased for as little as $90. She also insists her clients purchase their own wetsuits rather than rent them.

Stanfield was kind enough to point out the error to me, and I apologized to her. I don’t like making mistakes.

Also, those little fish in the big photo certainly aren’t angel fish but rather are Schoolmasters, a member of the snapper family.

The fish were identified by sharp-eyed reader and veteran scuba diver Hugh Warder of New Castle.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled column.

Colorado elk hunters burst out of the chute Saturday for the five-day, elk-only season that runs through Wednesday. It’s the first of four elk and elk-and-deer seasons that wind up in mid -November, although there are some special late season and private-land hunts that go through December.

With an estimated 265,000 elk in Colorado, you’d think finding one for the freezer would be a sure thing.

But you’d think that only if you have never gone elk hunting.

Elk quickly learn when hunting season begins, it’s probably the sound of ATVs roaring up and down previously deserted trails, and the animals just as quickly disappear into havens where hunters can’t or won’t go.

It’s not like there’s a shortage of elk, even big bulls. Ever since the ratio of bulls to cows dropped into the single digits in the 1980s, the Division of Wildlife has pushed to increase the number of bulls in the herd.

Today, the sex ratio statewide is more like 27 bulls to 100 cows, said state big-game manager Bruce Watkins.

“We are at or over our population objectives in all of our elk (management units) and at or over our sex ratio objectives in 88 percent of the units,” Watkins said.

He said the statewide objective for bulls-to-cows ratio is 24 per 100.

“Some elk populations are well over 30 percent (bulls),” he said. “And it might be higher than we’ve observed since we know we have a bias against seeing bulls” during aerial census flights.

The bull-to-cow ratio has improved over the last decade for a number of reasons.

One big change came when the Division of Wildlife went to antler point restrictions and prohibited the harvest of spike (yearling) bulls.

“Even after we went to a four-point antler restriction we still had a fair amount of illegal kill on spikes,” Watkins said. “Our estimate was about 10-15 percent of the spike bulls” were being killed illegally each year.

Even so, the antler-point restriction cut the bull harvest, which increased the number of bulls surviving hunting season.

An even bigger impact came in 2001 when the DOW increased the price of a nonresident elk license, which this year costs $526 for a bull tag and $251 for a cow tag. Resident licenses are $46 each.

That price jump drove away thousands of nonresident bull-elk hunters.

“With that nonresident license increase, we lost 35,000 bull hunters, almost all of them (buying) over-the-counter bull (licenses),” said Watkins. “We’ve never got them back.”

Plus, the DOW’s emphasis on harvesting cow elk, which has increased substantially since 2000, has artificially bumped up the bull-to-cow ratio.

“We’re killing a lot more cows now,” said Watkins. “In the 1980s we were pretty conservative with those licenses but as populations grew in the 1990 we’ve become more aggressive with our cow elk harvest.”

Some hunters still refuse to harvest a cow elk, a thought supported by the numerous cow elk licenses still available as leftovers for this year’s seasons.

Maybe it’s the either-sex licenses that are pushing the harvest, but in recent seasons hunters have reduced the state’s elk herds by about 10,000 animals per year.

“Our population models show we are making progress in bringing those numbers down,” said Watkins.

“But even when we get to our objectives we’re still going to dealing with a lot of elk. Not necessarily in terms of carrying capacity, just in sheer numbers.”

Which means it’s no problem to find one out there waiting for you, right?


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