Generally accepted: Elk, mule deer population on par

Our next example of understanding what you read involves the recent proclamation by the Colorado Division of Wildlife saying the elk population on Grand Mesa is roughly one-third larger than estimated, and mule deer numbers are off by the same amount.

Although knowing there are approximately 6,500 more elk and 10,000 fewer mule deer in the handful of game management units that comprise Grand Mesa might excite hunters and ranchers — for decidedly different reasons — there’s nothing up there that hunters and ranchers don’t already know and have generally accepted.

More precise data-gathering techniques, ranging from longer-life radio collars for tracking individual animals to closely monitored aerial counting methods, have provided biologists with population estimates closer to what actually lives on the mesa.

Older census techniques estimated elk numbers around 11,500 animals; mule deer were estimated at approximately 30,000 animals.

The new numbers are 18,000 for elk and 20,000 for mule deer.

Before you squawk in anticipation of A) more or fewer hunting licenses, or B) more or fewer game damage claims, there’s one caveat: No matter how many four-legged critters haunt the timber and meadows of Grand Mesa, the two-legged critters managing that area seem quite content.

“In 2007, our public meetings showed that, for the most part, there was general satisfaction with the size of the deer and elk herds on the Mesa,” said Stephanie Duckett, DOW terrestrial biologist for the Grand Junction area. “There still is the same number of animals, we were just estimating it wrong.”

In other words, if you think the elk herds were fine the way they were (or thought they were) but 18,000 elk might be too many, just tell yourself it’s only 11,500 and go on about your business.

Same with the mule deer. A paper loss of 10,000 mule deer might seem extraordinary but it means little, at least as far as hunting opportunities and the way the DOW manages the health of the herd.

It might offer an excuse for why you didn’t harvest a deer this year, but at the same time, you have 6,500 fewer excuses for not having an elk in the freezer.

“The number of elk on the ground hasn’t changed, we just have a better picture of what that number is,” DOW spokesman Randy Hampton said. “Because our new model shows we probably have significantly more elk doesn’t mean there are more elk overnight.”

Management plans won’t change because they are working as designed to foster elk and deer herds in a “careful and considerate manner,” state big game manager Bruce Watkins said.

“It’s not like we miscounted the animals,” Watkins said. “The number of elk on the ground aren’t changing, we just feel more confident in our estimate of more elk on the ground.”

When the division held public meetings in 2007 regarding its plans for managing deer and elk on Grand Mesa, everyone was content with the old population numbers. The DOW sets certain population objectives based on sets of game units, call Data Analysis Units, and annually adjusts license numbers (harvest objectives) as part of those management plans.

And based on those old numbers, the DOW managed the area to maintain a population of 9,000 to 11,000 and about 30,000 deer.

The new plans call for keeping herds in the 16,000 to 24,000 range for mule deer and 14,500 to 21,500 for elk.

Watkins said new census techniques use more objective population modeling data than in the past, which means the DOW computer spits out numbers more closely matching what’s actually out there.

You might think, and rightly so, that having more elk (or at least knowing there are more elk than previously thought) would equate to more licenses. When asked, the answer from the DOW was “yes and no.”

“We believe our management style right now allows us to maintain a stable population,” said JT Romatzke, Area 7 wildlife manager overseeing Grand Mesa. “Our licenses won’t change because the other changes are (on paper) for the (area).”

Changes might come in the form of licenses, such as eliminating either-sex elk tags for the traditional bull and cow tags.

Either way, you probably won’t notice the difference. No matter what you read.


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