State wildlife commissioners on Thursday approved increases in limited licenses for a number of big-game species, while cutting licenses for elk.
The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission took the action during a meeting in Grand Junction. That meeting continues this morning starting at 8 a.m. at the Courtyard by Marriott on Horizon Drive.
Limited licenses are ones that are subject to an application and draw process, as opposed to ones that can simply be purchased over the counter. Factors such as species, sex, hunting area and hunting method help dictate what types of licenses are offered.
The commission's action on big-game limited licenses is one of the key decisions it makes each year. Numbers are geared toward meeting management plan objectives for individual herds.
The license decision also serves as an opportunity for reflecting on the state of various big-game species in Colorado.
"Deer, elk and moose are stable and pronghorn are increasing in the state," Andy Holland, the agency's big game species manager, told the commission.
He said the state had 690,000 applicants for what will be 250,000 licenses for those animals this year.
Colorado's 2017 post-hunt deer numbers are estimated at 419,000, unchanged from the previous year. The elk population is about 282,000, up about 10,000 from the previous year.
Pronghorn numbers grew to an estimated 85,600, a record level and up from 81,100 in 2016, and moose numbers grew by about 100, to 3,100.
Elk license numbers in Colorado have been declining over the years. That's in part because the state long has been intentionally working to reduce an overpopulation, and now is basing license numbers on a smaller population size and more herds that are at or near management objectives. Another factor is a decline in calf-cow ratios that are an indicator of herd reproduction levels. Those ratios have been of particular concern in southwest Colorado, which has been in a drought for 20 years, and the declining ratios are slowly moving north.
"That's a very big concern we've been watching," Holland said.
Applicants for limited elk licenses in Colorado have held steady recently at around 200,000 a year. The commission approved 127,600 licenses for this year, down 5,600 from last year, or 4 percent. The reduction includes about 4,200 fewer licenses in Northwest Colorado, representing a 5 percent drop.
In a memo to the commission, CPW director Bob Broscheid said that as the agency has worked to reduce elk numbers, hunters and outfitters have expressed concerns that some herd numbers are too low, even though a third of herds are more than 10 percent above their population range objective. He wrote that based on public feedback, the agency gives serious consideration to raising population goals as herd management plans are updated, while considering other factors such as habitat condition and game damage to private land.
Holland said the Bears Ears elk herd in far-northwestern Colorado "is really productive, it's cranking, we don't want to let that herd get away from us," so cow elk licenses are being increased there.
Holland said CPW had 186,000 applications for deer licenses last year, and has seen steady growth in deer application demand for one of the premier mule deer hunting states in the West, and perhaps the premier state.
CPW will offer 94,900 limited deer licenses this year, a 3 percent increase. It is continuing to try to slowly restore deer licenses in some Western Slope areas where licenses were cut after a harsh winter in 2007-08 took a heavy toll on deer numbers.
The Bears Ears area in northwestern Colorado, home to the state's largest mule deer herd, with 40,000 animals, will see buck licenses grow by 270, or 7 percent. The White River herd in the Meeker area, the state's second-largest, will see buck licenses increase by 350, or 10 percent.
Limited licenses for pronghorn will go up 7 percent, to 26,600. Last year 56,000 hunters applied for limited pronghorn licenses.
The state's largest pronghorn herd, in the Craig area, has about 21,000 animals.
Last year 26,000 hunters applied for just 415 moose licenses. This year 452 licenses will be offered.
Moose have been the subject of a transplant program into Colorado. The state has been fortunate to have its population do well even as populations struggle in other states, Broscheid said in his memo to commissioners. Colorado now offers moose hunting in 60 game management units, up from 39 in 2013.
Holland said the strong and stable moose population in Colorado "is a testament not only to all of our transplant efforts all over the state but also the quality of moose habitat we have."
He said the license increase is designed in part to protect willows and aspen from being overbrowsed in moose habitat.
Altogether, Colorado has more than 800,000 big game animals.
The parks and wildlife commission approved bighorn sheep and mountain goat license numbers in January. On Thursday, it also approved 28,600 licenses for bear, a 9 percent increase. The agency is seeking to reduce bear numbers in many management areas, and believes it has been having success in doing so.
Last year was one of the worst years for bear forage in Colorado, thanks to late spring frost and drought conditions in summer, Mark Vieira, CPW's carnivore and furbearer program manager, told the commission. Bear-human conflicts were high, as were the number of bear removals by CPW officials and bear mortalities due to roadkill and other non-hunting human causes.
The agency has set a bear hunting harvest objective of about 1,200 for this year.