OUT: Sunday Column January 11, 2009

Commission to consider shed-antler restrictions, Grand Mesa moose hunt

A relatively benign activity that’s gone from a weekend outing to one where participants employ ATVs, helicopters and high-priced location finders has caught once more the attention of the Colorado Wildlife Commission.

At its meeting Monday in Denver, the commission will consider several proposals, ranging from reigning in shed antler hunters to delisting the bald eagle and adding a moose-hunting season on Grand Mesa.

Shed antler hunting, the once-quaint pastime of picking up dropped antlers enjoyed mostly by people finding themselves midwinter with too much time on their hands, has become a highly competitive endeavor that could bring a committed collector several thousand dollars each year.

Google “shed antler hunting” and you’ll find more than 40,000 responses, barely indicative of how many people enjoy collecting the sun-polished vestige of a buck or bull.

But it’s because so many people are caught up in “antler fever” that the wildlife commission is looking at tightening the antler-hunting restrictions by putting time constraints on when hunters can get out.

The commission already targets shed-antlers hunters with a closure from Jan. 1 to March 15 on public lands in the Gunnison Basin. The idea is to protect wintering deer and elk in from intrusions by thoughtless people traipsing into critical range.

The closure was pushed by Gunnison-area sportsmen and local Division of Wildlife biologists concerned about the impacts of adding additional stress to already stressed animals.

There’s not much information about how well that closure worked last year, since the Gunnison Basin last winter had one its deepest snowpacks in a century, which pretty much limited access better than any regulation might have.

However, there already are concerns the closure needs to be tweaked to protect breeding Gunnison sage grouse and to address other intruders into winter range.

“We’re asking for an extension from March 15 to May 15, from sunset to 10 a.m.,” said Jim Cochran of the Gunnison Basin Sage Grouse Strategic Committee at last month’s commission workshop. “Extending the night time closure to 10 a.m. will assure all the birds are off the leks to have less impact on the sage grouse.”

Although the Audubon Society lists Gunnison sage grouse among the 10 most endangered birds in North America, the federal government disagrees, and in 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the bird was not eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Studies do show, however, that the bird’s desired habitat has decreased by 90 percent with a proportional drop in sage grouse numbers.

Leks, the dancing grounds where spring males display their feathered finery in attempts to find receptive females, are busiest just before sunrise and deserted by mid-morning.

Antler hunters, too, are out early on spring mornings, and the conflicts, even unintentional, bode ill for sage grouse.

“It’s become a very well-known commercial activity in the Gunnison Basin,” said Tom Spezze, Southwest Region Manager for the Division of Wildlife. “People rent motels, ATVs, helicopters, to give themselves leg up on the competition. You don’t see this anywhere else, not in such a concentrated effort.”

Local stories say some hunters “disguise” their activity and hide piles of antlers using GPS systems in order to locate their caches later. 

Spezze said having the closure start Jan. 1 protects wintering deer.

“At that time, hopefully the antlers are still attached to their head,” Spezze said. “If the (antler hunters) have them then, there are bigger penalties we’ll impose.”

The commission also will look at initiating a moose season on Grand Mesa, where the herd has grown to an estimated 120 to 150 animals.

“It will be a very limited moose hunt, probably one bull license,” said DOW spokesman Randy Hamilton. “It’s part of our initial plan when we first started talking about relocating moose to Grand Mesa and was part of the plan supported by sportsmen.”

The Grand Mesa moose herd began in January 2005 when the Division unloaded three moose from a horse trailer near Harrison Creek. Since then, more than 90 moose have been relocated to Grand Mesa.

The wildlife commission meeting starts at 8:30 a.m. at the Denver headquarters. If you’re unable to attend, you can listen to a live stream of the proceedings on the Division of Wildlife Web site. Go to wildlife.state.co.us, click on wildlife commission and at the bottom of the page click on “Listen to live audio.”


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