Wildlife staff to track progress of management efforts, big game

Researchers blindfold captured ungulates, such as this desert bighorn sheep, to calm the animal during the hectic minutes of an aerial capture and the resultant tests and measurements. Thsi sheep was captured in Nevada prior to being moved to new home in Utah.

A team of specially trained pilots and capture specialists from Native Range Capture Services of Ventura, Cal. work to quiet a moose during a winter capture. Researchers use such captures to monitor the health of big-game herds and develop long-term management plans.

Beginning early this month and continuing through late March, Colorado Parks and Wildlife employees are flying across expanses of wildlife habitat in search of big game animals.

It’s not a sightseeing tour, but rather part of the agency’s annual survey to judge ages and sex ratios in herds of deer, elk and pronghorn.

Hunters and outdoor recreationists are cautioned that low-flying helicopters or airplanes may be encountered at any time.

In addition to that inventory of thousands of animals on the hoof, wildlife staff also will coordinate the helicopter capture and radio-collaring of 75 elk, 90 moose, 20 desert bighorn sheep, 25 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and 1,300 mule deer, including 800 does, 400 fawns and 100 bucks.

The data will allow agency researchers and biologists to track the progress of several wildlife management efforts and ongoing studies.

Researchers also will gain a clearer picture about the overall health of big game, allowing wildlife managers to form population models, management strategies and set future hunting-license numbers.

These numbers play a key role in the development of the 2015-2019 big-game season structure, currently being formulated by Parks and Wildlife staff.

“We will spend long hours in cold temperatures and harsh conditions, but it is vital that we keep track of how all these species are faring across the state,” Northwest Region Senior Terrestrial Biologist Brad Petch said. “These yearly efforts provide us with vitally important information that helps us effectively conserve Colorado’s populations of big game animals.”

Radio-collared animals provide a variety of biological data. Collar-wearing mule deer, for example, allow biologists to monitor survival rates of adults and fawns, used for estimating population sizes and improving management techniques.

Parks and Wildlife mammals researcher Chuck Anderson is leading a 10-year study to measure how Piceance Basin mule deer populations have responded to natural gas exploration.

He is also studying the efficacy of mitigation efforts designed to address human activity and habitat degradation in the resource-rich area.

“We have been concerned about the steady decline of mule deer populations in several areas of Northwest Colorado and we need as much information as we can get to reverse the trend,” Anderson said. “Capture and collar operations are among the most important methods we use to gather data about mule deer migration patterns and movements in response to human activity.”

The Piceance Basin research project, funded primarily by several energy producers currently exploring in the area, is scheduled to continue until 2018.

Another project in the Piceance Basin, which was set to end this year, was aimed at improving habitat around well sites and pipelines by controlling the expansion of exotic weeds on those sites.

Parks and Wildlife habitat researcher Danielle Johnston ran a series of six experiments at 12 sites at varying elevations in the Piceance Basin. She tested various combinations of native plant seeds, herbicides, mulch and soil treatments, including compacting and plowing the ground.

Johnston said weeds, especially cheatgrass, were a significant problem at the lower elevation sites, but the herbicide combined with planting over a bumpy surface of mounds and holes, which traps weed seeds, was effective in controlling weeds.

Anderson noted nearly all residents of western Colorado “have a vested interest in finding effective solutions that will allow the continued exploration for much-needed energy while maintaining and preserving the viability of this critical mule deer habitat.”


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