Rifle hunters lucky to spot elk on public land

This week’s lowering skies and the layering of high-country snow that often accompanies them come at an auspicious time for hunters.

The first of four rifle seasons opened Saturday, and hunters leaving the lowlands Friday should have been prepared for sloppy roads and unseasonable temperatures.

They also might want to be on the look out for elk, because in some places only early season hunters have the certitude of seeing elk.

Studies in the Bears Ears and White River areas of northwest Colorado, homes to the state’s largest elk herds, have shown that late-summer disturbances, including early archery and blackpowder hunts, contribute to elk moving onto transition range long before weather and snow conditions might force them.

Unfortunately for most hunters, particularly those hunting public land and without the deep pockets to pay exorbitant trespass fees, most of the transition areas are private land.

This is great for landowners who take advantage of paying hunters to help pay the bills and put a little jingle in the bank account, but it’s hard on public-land guys who can only watch from across the fence at thousands of elk grazing in someone’s field.

Realizing this, the DOW has limited the archery season in some game units in an attempt to retain more elk on public land for later hunt seasons.

But it isn’t just hunters chasing away the elk.

“There’s a proliferation of ATVs, OHVs, and off-road riders recreating year-round in those areas,” said Tom Remington, Colorado Division of Wildlife director. “These animals are chased and harassed all year long, it’s not just hunters.”

Year-round disturbances make wary animals even more wary. Add to this near-constant state of nerves caused by a few scofflaw hunters out riding herd on elk and you have the makings of a lackluster hunting season.

Last year the legislature passed House Bill 1069, which gives DOW officers authority to ticket hunters taking their vehicles into no-go areas, damaging the environment and spooking wildlife.

The grace period of warning tickets is over, Remington said during a conversation at the recent Colorado Wildlife Commission meeting in Glenwood Springs.

“Our officers will be enforcing the law this year,” he said.

Early big-game movement off summer range also creates problems for ranchers still running cattle on those mid-elevation areas. A few elk moving through late in the year is an expected part of doing business for most ranchers.

What they don’t want to see is thousands of elk displacing cattle or eating all the winter feed before winter even begins.

Keeping those elk on summer range as long as possible not only provides better hunting opportunities, it also allays fears that there are too many elk.

Of course, that isn’t the case anymore, at least in some areas of the Northwest Region, where the DOW is winding up a multi-year concerted effort to reduce elk numbers.

“Ranchers who three or four years ago were writing to me and complaining about too many elk now are saying maybe we ought to slow down a bit, that they are just fine with the elk numbers,” said Ron Velarde, Northwest Region manager.

In some places, where licenses and elk both were plentiful, hunters made a decided difference in elk populations.

In 2006, “hunters killed 1,000 cow elk off the Big Gulch Ranching for Wildlife property,” Velarde said. “That’s a lot of elk.”

The wildlife commission also got a first glance at an in-depth report on the emergency feeding program in the Gunnison Basin during the 2007/2008 winter.

The report will be used by the DOW to develop a statewide feeding plan, with faster response times and better coordination of human resources and materials.

“The whole state lit up,” recalled Remington of that year, when emergency feeding programs were being conducted simultaneously in Gunnison, the Vail Valley, near Steamboat Springs and the in Craig area.

“We responded as well as we could, but not as well as we would have liked,” Remington said. “The struggle we faced in 2007/2008 was re-learning how to feed.”

Few of the current DOW field officers had participated in feeding operations when the snows grew deep, and soon it was discovered too many of the state-owned machines available were old and worn out.

“We were losing our institutional memory on winter feeding,” said Velarde, one of the relatively few experienced DOW officers. “And we discovered the machines that worked around Gunnison, where the snow was cold and dry and real loose, weren’t right for the snow around Craig, where we had 4 to 5 feet of snow on the ground and it was hard as concrete.”

“We learned a lot of lessons that year,” said Tony Gurzick, assistant Southeast Region manager. “This plan will make it easier to put together a large-scale feeding program.”


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