Agency manages tags to better manage elk herds

Hunters searching for cow elk tags this year should still have some success. Biologists say 20 percent of the cow population must be harvested each year to maintain a level elk population.

When the 2010 elk hunting season kicks off in less than one month, a significant portion of those hunters will be aiming for a cow elk.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife this year issued 133,600 either-sex and cow elk licenses including some 93,000 cow-only tags.

That’s a lot of opportunity, but sometimes it’s an opportunity that goes unwanted.

“The last couple of years we’ve had more than 10,000 licenses that went unsold,” said Mary Lloyd of the Division of Wildlife’s licensing section.

Some of those are private land tags, some are late-season, some just aren’t noticed for some reason.

But it’s been worse.

A few years ago, before the division started paring some licenses for units that went unsold on a regular basis, you might have 20,000 or more licenses standing forlornly at the end of the hunting season.

“We cut back many of those licenses for several reasons,” Lloyd said. “In some units, we reduced the license quota because there were surplus licenses every year.”

Some of those high number of licenses had their origin in the years from roughly 1998 to 2004, when the division made a concerted effort to reduce elk populations in western Colorado.

Although elk numbers were really high in northwest Colorado, ranchers and landowners across the Western Slope voiced complaints about there being too many elk.

In 1998, with elk numbers statewide reaching close to 255,000 animals, the division made its opening move by issuing unlimited over-the-counter, either-sex elk tags.

Although that increased the cow harvest by more than 7,000 over the prior year, it also had a significant side effect: So many unexperienced hunters were chasing cow elk they forgot to make sure of their target.

More than 16 moose illegally were killed when hunters mistook the large-nosed ungulates for cow elk.

The division gradually fine-tuned its cow elk seasons to fit specific herds.

In 2002, with elk numbers still above 297,000, an emergency drought regulation opened extra cow tags in northwest Colorado, said terrestrial biologist Darby Finley in Meeker.

Those cow licenses, as well as many available now, were classified as “additional” or List B, allowing a hunter to harvest more than one elk as long as one was a cow.

“Those List B licenses allowed us to get additional cow harvest without diminishing the hunting experience,” Finley said. “The hunters were already there.”

In 2003 and 2004, the division targeted the expanding White River herd by offering 2,000 over-the-counter, fourth-season elk tags each year for a handful of game units north of Craig.

The thought was that the weather in those later seasons would push those elk to lower elevations where hunters could reach their quarry.

Those additional licenses were so effective that one year hunters killed an extra 1,000 cow elk on Ranching for Wildlife properties alone, Finley said.

“All those license were hugely successful in helping us control elk numbers,” he said.

The Bears Ears elk herd, which was targeted by those licenses, is now at the upper limit of the desired population levels, Finley said, thanks to the extra harvest.

Some List B licenses, including some late-season tags, still are available but in fewer numbers, Lloyd said .

While many of the last-season tags are for private land, “there still are places on public land where you can get into them,” Lloyd said.

For instance, this year in unit 54 in the Gunnison Basin, additional cow tags are available as List B licenses in the second, third and fourth seasons.

Another move to increase cow harvest is a recent change in the archery cow license, which now are valid only in those units where List B rifle licenses exist.

It’s a fine line between offering additional elk licenses to control populations and not having too many hunters in the field, as Finley noted.

The division could flood the market with licenses, but it’s a rule of hunting that simply adding hunters doesn’t necessarily increase the harvest.

“You get a diminishing return and success actually decreases with too many hunters out there,” Finley said.

He also said a lot of the List B cow licenses are popular because they allow hunters to hunt in more than one season.

It takes a lot of cow harvest to control populations.

State big-game manager Andy Holland said 20 percent of the cow population must be harvested each year to maintain a level population.

“Our survival rate on cow elk is so high we have to look at those (license) numbers each year,” Holland said. “The hunter wanting to get cow elk license should still be able to get one.”


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