As herds improve, deer hunting tags receive lift

Herds in western Colorado still well below desired levels

This young hunter has reason to be proud of his hard-earned trophy mule deer buck. Declining deer herds across the West are making this a less often seen occurrence in recent years.

The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission on Thursday approved slight changes in deer licenses (up) and elk licenses (down) for the 2013 big-game hunting season.

Total deer-license numbers went up by 4 percent to 82,600 for the 2013 hunting season in response to the constant appetite for deer hunting.

West of Interstate 25, 67,700 licenses will be available in the draw.

State big-game manager Andy Holland told the commission that demand for deer licenses remained steady over the past decade (an estimated 160,000 applicants each year), and although this year’s total license numbers are up by 2,800 over 2012, the harvest is expected to drop, from 33,000 deer in 2012 to 32,000 in 2013.

That means that even though more licenses are available, hunter success doesn’t go up in direct correlation.

The majority of the license increase comes in areas where deer herds are rebounding from the winter of 2007-08 and/or have reached or are above desired buck-doe ratios and population objectives.

Those better-performing herds include the Gunnison Basin, where during the 
2007-08 winter an estimated 9,000 or more deer were being fed emergency rations; and in the Middle Park, State Bridge and Sweetwater (western Eagle County) areas.

“It’s a very encouraging sign that our deer herds are rebounding,” Holland said.

Licenses also were increased on the Eastern Plains, where white-tailed deer herds are continuing to do well.

He said estimates put the post-hunt 2012 deer population around 408,000 deer, well below the 418,000 estimated post-hunt 2011.

“Our predicted post-hunt population for 2013 is 414,000 as we continue to make progress toward the statewide population objective,” Holland said.

That objective is in the 525,000 to 575,000 range for the state’s 55 deer herds.

The decline of deer herds West-wide is a matter concerning biologist and hunters, and Holland said deer numbers in Colorado dropped 10 percent last year.

What’s kept the picture at least reasonably bright is the variety of deer habitat available across the state.

“Most deer herds in the central and northern mountains are performing well,” Holland said.

He tempered that by noting deer herds in far western Colorado haven’t returned to historic levels and those areas had no license increases.

Limited elk license numbers, which make up about 66 percent of total elk license sales, dropped less than 1 percent to 138,300, a reflection of the success the state has had in bringing most of the herd to within desired population levels.

The license numbers signal a fine-tuning of hunting opportunities, including a lessening of the need for antlerless (cow) harvest as herds reach desired levels, adjusting for the success of the late-season youth elk hunt, and trying to balance license numbers with hunter demand.

Holland noted, even accounting for the availability of unlimited over-the-counter bull licenses, the harvest of antlerless elk almost equals the entire bull harvest.

“This illustrates the significant amount of hunting opportunity” these licenses offer, Holland said.

The commission discussed that although 41 percent of the elk herds are above desired population numbers, hunters and outfitters are complaining that some elk herds are too low, and hunting pressure should be reduced to allow those herds to grow.

Statewide elk numbers peaked at a little more than 300,000 in 2001. Since then they have declined to the 266,000 estimated post-hunt 2012.

“We’re still harvesting cows at a very high rate, but it takes a lot of cow harvest to maintain herd size,” Holland said.

Pronghorn license numbers were slashed by 21 percent, mostly in the Southwest Region.

That’s largely in response to a declining harvest even with more licenses available. Pronghorn harvest peaked at 12,300 in 2010, but subsequent years experienced harvest declines, including 11,700 in 2011 and 9,900 in 2012.

This year’s predicted harvest is 9,400 with a post-hunt population statewide of 65,000 pronghorn.

The commission also approved a 90-day emergency fishing regulation to protect tiger muskies at Harvey Gap Reservoir. The rule bans spearfishing, gigging and bow-fishing.


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