Future of elk in jeopardy in southwestern Colorado

DURANGO, Colo. — Over the past few years, elk herds in southwestern Colorado have been slowly dying off, and wildlife officials are concerned about the iconic ungulate’s ability to survive in healthy numbers in the long term.

The issue involves a mystery: About half of the elk calves born in southwestern Colorado die within six months. Of the survivors, another 15 percent perish before they turn a year old.

And researchers don’t know why, The Durango Herald reports.

The problem encompasses wildlife mismanagement: After record high elk populations in the 1990s, the Division of Wildlife (now Colorado Parks and Wildlife) ordered a mass hunt to cut back the animal’s numbers.

These same elk herds are now struggling to recover.

And, there are pressures from an avid user group: hunters, who in vast numbers travel to Colorado’s rich public lands. On top of killing elk, they can disrupt breeding habits and future offspring.

The challenge of understanding the forces behind this population decline comes at a time when Colorado will restructure the way it carries out big-game hunting seasons, which, among conservationists and hunters alike, presents an opportunity to help elk recover.

“I’ve been hunting in this area since 1993,” said Thomas Downing, an archery hunter and manager of Gardenswartz, an outdoors and sporting goods company in Durango. “What I’ve witnessed, firsthand, is our elk herd is not in healthy shape.”

By the early 1900s, Western settlers had wiped out nearly all of the elk in North America, bringing an estimated population of 10 million down to just 40,000 animals throughout the United States and parts of Canada.

The U.S. Forest Service in 1910 estimated just 500 to 1,000 elk roamed the entire state of Colorado.

To revive the population, the state banned elk hunting until the early 1930s, and elk from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, were transplanted into 14 areas around the state, including the Hermosa Creek valley, north of Durango.

Those restoration efforts were highly successful. Colorado now boasts the largest elk population – about 280,000 animals – in North America.

In southwestern Colorado, elk herds enjoyed a prolonged period of prosperity in the 1990s, a time many hunters remember fondly.

“It was wonderful,” said David Petersen, a lifelong hunter, acclaimed naturalist and writer on hunting ethics. “And it just got better and better. Lots of elk. Lots of bulls. Elk bugling everywhere, all the time.”

But the high was short-lived.

Elk are hungry grazers, eating between 15 to 21 pounds of food a day.

In the summer, the ungulates prefer to stay in the high county, feeding on grasses, forbs and shrubs.

But in the winter, small bands tend to coalesce into large herds to spend the cold months feeding at lower elevations, in areas now occupied by farms and ranches.

Consequently, it’s not uncommon that elk cause a fair amount of damage to fields and crops and compete with livestock.

Toward the late 1990s, with elk abundant on the landscape, ranchers and farmers pressured the Division of Wildlife to reduce their numbers. And the agency responded, aggressively, by allowing more hunters to hunt.

Specifically, the Division of Wildlife issued a virtual free pass for killing cows. But killing too many females also began to kill the animal’s potential to reproduce.

At the height of the uncontrolled culling, a total of 3,500 hunting tags were issued in 1996 for the cow harvest in two herds around Durango.

This period, by contrast, is a time remembered not so fondly.

“During some private-land cow hunts, I saw elk falling dead by the dozens a day,” Petersen said. “It was an ugly slaughter. They hit the elk cows especially hard for several years.”

In the San Juan herd, which ranges from the Animas River east to Wolf Creek Pass, about 23,000 elk were cut down to about 17,300. In the Hermosa herd, a population of about 6,500 was reduced to 4,100.

Scott Wait, a senior terrestrial biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said that while these numbers don’t drastically stand out, they are significant in the complex art of big game management. And, in retrospect, many people felt the reduction effort was too aggressive.

“Maybe we were too successful, or maybe the public tolerance has changed,” Wait said. “Regardless, we did decrease elk to the point of dissatisfaction.”

The population reduction alleviated conflicts with ranchers and farmers. The problem is, the effort went too far. Now, elk herds are below their desired population levels and a new host of issues threaten their recovery.

“In the last six to eight years, we’ve tried to go back into the population growth phase,” Wait said. “But we are struggling getting the population of elk to grow again.”

Categories: Hunting News

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