How many elk are too many or just right?

One method Colorado uses to manage elk numbers is offering over-the-counter bull elk licenses during the second and third rifle big-game seasons.

Trying to decide how many elk are enough elk reads a bit like Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

First, it’s too hot.

Then, it’s too cold.

Finally, it’s just right.

But we aren’t sampling porridge; we’re talking about fitting elk populations somewhere between what the land will carry and what the people will tolerate.

From too many a decade ago to (almost) just right today, Colorado’s elk herds have become a poster child for reining in a once-booming big-game population.

Elk numbers statewide have dropped steadily since 2001, when the Division of Wildlife (now Colorado Parks and Wildlife) estimated a record 305,500 using a modified system for estimated elk numbers.

That’s not only a lot of elk but it’s too many elk, no matter how you look at that number.

Whether you’re a rancher worried about fences and livestock, a hunter amazed by elk herds numbering in the thousands, or a wildlife biologist wondering just how all those elk were going to make it through the winter, it soon became a question of not how but how soon could the state get those numbers decreased.

A decade later, many of those elk herds are at or near population objectives, mostly due to some intense hunter education and aggressive licensing, particularly for cow elk.

But a funny thing happened during that decade: Hunters who a few years earlier would rather have eaten rocks than shoot a cow elk discovered harvesting a cow wasn’t so bad.

In fact, given that there were considerably more licenses (meaning hunting opportunity) for cow elk and that a cow elk usually tastes better than some randy old bull, many hunters began preferring cow elk.

Either-sex licenses, meant to give hunters an early opportunity for the bull and then, if that failed, a chance to put a cow elk in the freezer,  turned into de facto cow tags.

Once hunters figured out a cow elk usually meant a full freezer, they started applying in the draw for cow tags.

This put a bit of competition in the process and made some of the more-popular cow tags require a preference point.

Today, with fewer licenses needed to keep the lid on elk populations, hunters are finding their sure-thing cow licenses getting harder to procure.

“A cow elk hunt may soon be much more of a first choice (on the application) than a second or even as a leftover license,” said Brad Petch, senior terrestrial biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Northwest Region. “My guess is that as the big units come closer to objective, most of the (cow) licenses will go early in the draw.”

In other words, you snooze, you lose.

There still is no shortage of elk or elk licenses. Colorado Parks and Wildlife estimated the 2010 post-hunt population at 282,000 animals, down from 286,000 in 2009. The agency aims to reach 261,000 elk by post-hunt 2011.

“We’ve had a pretty glorious period of having elk in such numbers that you could plan on drawing or picking up” a cow elk license, Petch said. “That’s still out there in places but it’s becoming much more limited than even two to three years ago.”

Even in the heyday of plentiful cow elk tags, hunters were being cautioned that the bounty would not last forever.

Sure enough, those words have come to pass.

Statewide, antlerless and either-sex elk licenses were cut 8 percent this year, from 118,458 in 2010 to 108,616 in 2011.

The areas seeing the biggest declines in those licenses (and those areas with elk herds closest to objective) include the Bear’s Ears, San Juan and White River herds.

Hunters more interested in hunting as often as possible can pick up over-the-counter bull licenses for the second and third rifle seasons, Oct. 22 - 30 and Nov. 5 - 13.

Over-the-counter bull licenses aren’t available during the first (Oct. 15 - 19) and fourth (Nov. 16-20) seasons because bulls during those early and late seasons are more susceptible to hunter pressure.

The fourth season particularly so, since by then winter snow has pushed the bulls out of the high country into open terrain where the animals have gathered into their winter bachelor herds.

Keeping a lid on the number of hunters (via the licensing process) ensures there won’t be an over-harvest of those wintering bulls. Cow elk licenses also are limited for similar reasons.

“It’s much easier to manage population sizes with a specific number of licenses of cow elk licenses with dependable harvest rate,” Petch said. “With either-sex licenses it’s difficult to predict in advance what type of harvest you’re going to get.

“When we’re over our population objectives that’s not such big concern but when we’re close or even under objectives, it really means something.”

Cow hunters this year still should have plenty of opportunity even though license numbers overall have been decreased.

Biologists will tell you license numbers were cut for various reasons.

Foremost, perhaps, is that as populations get closer to objective, a lower harvest rate is needed.

Likewise, elk herd below desired levels need less harvest, not more.

Other reasons for cutting cow licenses include the agency dumped licenses that historically went unsold and also to offset predicted late season harvest by youth hunters.

Still, several elk units saw an increase in their antlerless and either-sex licenses, including the Sand Dunes, up 310 licenses, and the Fryingpan River, up 300 licenses.

“For the last 15 to 20 years we’ve been looking for an opportunity to increase the harvest and get numbers down as soon as possible,” Petch said. “But we also know it doesn’t take nearly as much pressure on cows to maintain (desired population) levels as it does to get there in the first place.

“Now, we find we’re in the unfamiliar territory of being close to our desired population levels.”


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