Colorado wildlife managers are mobilizing to reverse the decline of elk in the southwestern quarter of the state by controlling hunting and protecting wildlife habitat, aiming to increase calf survival amid intensification droughts and development.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife teams are also launching an unprecedented statewide elk monitoring program. They will round up “several hundred” elk and fit them with global positioning satellite collars, giving multiple locations each day for each animal, said CPW senior biologist Jamin Grigg.
Colorado’s overall elk population remains larger than any other state. Heads of state see it as big business and celebrate the shrill bellowing of the bulls. A recent CPW study found that hunting and fishing generate $1.8 billion a year for Colorado’s economy, with elk playing a key role in attracting attention. Hunters harvested 35,230 elk in 2021 (19,981 bulls and 14,180 cows), agency records reviewed by the Denver Post show, up from 41,900 in 2014 (22,435 bulls and 17,284 cows).
In the early 1900s, unregulated hunting caused elk numbers to drop to 40,000 nationwide. Colorado now has about 308,901 elk, according to the latest CPW records.
But in southwestern Colorado, elk have been declining for two decades, from more than 140,000 to around 122,000, raising concerns. Elk calf survival rates south of Interstate 70 are estimated to be around 30 per 100 cows, compared to rates in northwestern Colorado near Craig and Steamboat Springs of around 58 calves per 100 cows.
State wildlife managers control the herds by limiting the hunting licenses they make available to kill elk, considered essential to herd expansion.
“How we raise a herd or reduce a herd – harvesting cows is our main tool to do that,” Grigg said. “For the past 18 years, we have reduced the cow harvest across the state, including the southwestern part of the state. As we saw a reduction in calf survival, we had to reduce the cow harvest. We have already significantly reduced the cow harvest to try to allow these herds to rebound. »
For example, hunting licenses for typical southwestern Colorado herds that allowed harvesting 2,000 cows two decades ago now typically allow harvesting less than 200, Grigg said. “We can’t reduce it much more.”
The priority of helping more calves survive is driving the development of new herd management plans underway – which are expected to be finalized early next year. These plans cover 14 herds across southwestern Colorado in areas managers identify as West Elk Mountains, Great Sand Dunes, Uncompahgre Plateau, Disappointment Creek, Lake Fork, Saguache, Hermosa, San Juan River Basin, Rio Grande River Basin, Cimarron, Paradox, East Gunnison River Basin and North San Luis Valley. Draft plans for 11 areas would be extended to 2033, and outdated plans for the Uncompahgre Plateau, Paradox and East Gunnison Basin herds need to be updated to put more emphasis on increasing numbers.
CPW teams are also conducting research into why more calves are not surviving.
So far, hunting advocacy groups in public comment have largely supported CPW’s efforts. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation supports a shift from unlimited over-the-counter hunting license sales to regulated tag issuance and also, if necessary, restricting access to preserve wildlife habitat, John said. Sand, Colorado president of the RMEF.
“It’s safe to say that if the herds go down, CPW is going to reduce the tags allowed in those areas,” Sand said.
“One of our main goals is to keep wildlife habitat wild,” Sand said. “It’s very urgent, something we have to do and we’re trying to do. The more wild places we can keep, the more conservation easements we can put in place, the better off we are.
Forces impeding elk survival include habitat loss and degradation due to roads, traffic, energy development, and increased residential and commercial construction along migration routes. Increased recreational activities in western Colorado are also making it harder for elk to survive.
State and federal ecologists point to global warming as a contributing factor to hot, dry conditions that reduce vegetation needs in southwestern Colorado. The aridity of some regions shrinks the vegetation that elk eat and that provides shelter for fawns from predators: coyotes, bears and cougars.
Wolves can come. Colorado voters in 2020 narrowly passed a ballot measure ordering CPW to reinstate Gray Wolves west of the Continental Divide. The agency is studying the best way to comply.
Wolves feed on moose.
The impact on herd numbers is uncertain.
“That remains to be seen,” Grigg said. “We certainly expect wolves to have localized impacts here and there. And we will adjust our management accordingly. We will monitor both the wolf population and the effects of the wolf population on ungulate populations such as elk.
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