Supply and demand with elk populations a key topic

The ratio between bull and cow elk in each herd are carefully monitored by wildlife biologists in figuring out license allocations. Biologists say most elk areas in Colorado are at or above desired bull-cow objectives.

Knowing when to increase elk licenses and when to cut them is part of the juggling act by state wildlife biologists who must balance supply with demand.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists, and truly biologists in any state where hunting is part of the wildlife management strategy, continually tread the delicate balance between physical carrying capacity (what the habitat will support) and social carrying capacity (what the humans want or will tolerate).

I talked with Andy Holland, state big-game biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, about that topic and where it comes up during his public meetings around the state.

Dave Buchanan: In a recent letter, you noted that while “most elk DAUs are at or above their current population objectives, the public has expressed increased concern that elk populations are becoming too low in some DAUs even though objectives are still exceeded.”

What can Colorado Parks and Wildlife do to convince the public that there must be a balance between social and physical carrying capacities?

Andy Holland: This point is emphasized continuously in all of our (Data Analysis Unit) plans, DAU planning surveys and DAU planning meetings. There’s always trade-off to any management choices.

I think most hunters have a pretty good grasp of the management challenges and choices we must make in setting population objectives. We intentionally have fewer elk than we did 10 to 15 years ago because we’ve reduced many herds to meet those population objectives.

The fact of the matter is, though, that when you’re out hunting you still would like to see the number of animals you’re accustomed to seeing in your spots.

DB: You earlier said “Most elk DAUs are near or over bull/cow ratio objectives.”

Does this mean more bull tags or simply the eventual end of either-sex licenses?

AH: Being above sex ratio objectives does allow the opportunity to increase bull licenses to some degree.

This is confounded though by the fact that cow harvest will decline proportionally as we reduce cow licenses because we’re at or approaching population objectives.

Additionally, if hunters don’t draw a cow license they are likely to pick up an over-the-counter bull license.

Therefore, we may not continue to see the bull to cow ratios increasing at the statewide level.

DB: Your elk outlook for this year says most units in 2011 will see over-the-counter licenses for archery season and over-the-counter bull tags for the second and third seasons.

These over-the-counter licenses, such as those for Grand Mesa, are extremely popular with hunters who simply want to hunt every year.

How important are those licenses in herd management compared to limited licenses that can more closely provide a targeted harvest?

AH: Over-the-counter, and male licenses in general, are important on the sex ratio objective side of herd management.

This primarily relates to social values and hunting opportunity.

The female harvest component is arguably much more important as it relates to population regulation and achieving population objectives.

DB: You earlier estimated this year’s elk harvest at 44,000 animals, which would be the lowest harvest since the 42,630 elk killed in 2001.

Does that portend similar (lower) harvests in the future? Are we at the end (as far as your crystal ball says) of the license glut when herds were at their peaks?

AH: First, there still are plenty of license opportunity for anyone who wants to hunt elk.

But, yes, we have been reducing limited cow and either-sex licenses for several years as we are at or approaching population objectives.

In many areas we also have smaller elk populations from which to harvest bulls.

It’s important to point out that the hunting is still good and we still have very productive herds, they are just somewhat smaller than they were at their peak in the 1990’s.

DB: Finally, fewer licenses means fewer hunters, an economic impact both to your agency and local businesses that depend on the economic boost of hunting season.

Does this have any impact on license decisions?

AH: Economic impacts to local communities are one of many considerations in the DAU planning process when setting population and sex ratio objectives.

It is also a consideration in the separate Parks and Wildlife Commission process to nominate DAUs for totally limited licenses.

License decisions are based on achieving DAU plan objectives, accounting for the productivity and population estimates relative to objective of individual herds.The financial impacts to Colorado Parks and Wildlife certainly come in on the budgeting side.

We are also making a concerted effort to market our elk hunting opportunities to not only recruit and retain hunters and but also to help on the revenue side.

We still have by far the largest elk population. Over-the-counter elk licenses are still a fantastic opportunity that few states can offer and none offer to the degree that we do.


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