Colorado Parks & Wildlife Area Wildlife Manager Rick Basagoitia, right, speaks to hunters attending a big game meeting this week in Alamosa. At left is Terrestrial Biologist Stephanie Steinhoff.
Courier photo by Ruth Heide
ALAMOSA — Although elk population estimates in parts of the San Luis Valley have exceeded Colorado Parks & Wildlife objectives, some hunters are not happy with what they are seeing — or not seeing — on the ground.
Some of the hunters attending a big game meeting in Alamosa this week told Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) staff they were not seeing elk in Game Management Units 80 and 81 (primarily Rio Grande County and Conejos Counties).
One hunter said, for example, he had ridden 25 miles in that area scouting it out last summer or early fall and not even seen a trace of an elk or deer. There used to be a lot of elk there, he said.
Another hunter said he had been hunting in that region for 40 years and believed not only the quantity but also the quality of the animals had diminished.
Parks & Wildlife Area Wildlife Manager Rick Basagoitia said there used to be too many elk in that area, and CPW intentionally tried to reduce the herd over the last 10 years by issuing more cow tags. He said now hunters are saying there are not enough animals and they are harder to find.
“We found what too many elk were … we cut that population on purpose. Now we know what too few elk are.”
Basagoitia added that elk are smart and know where to hide.
Stephanie Steinhoff, CPW area terrestrial biologist, said the population goal for elk in Units 80/81 is between 6,000 and 7,000, and in the last year estimates rose to about 7,300.
“Normally at this stage we would begin issuing more cow tags to decrease the population,” Steinhoff said, “but because of what we heard from hunters, we are letting the population grow back before starting to increase cow tags.”
One of the hunters present said the CPW objective for the number of elk in that area was too low, and 7,300 animals were not enough. The population should be more like 12,000 elk, he said.
The main reason for the big game public meeting in Alamosa, and a meeting the night before in South Fork, was to find out from hunters what they are seeing and what they would like to see before Basagoitia makes hunting season recommendations to state CPW staff this spring.
“Don’t get hung up on the numbers,” Basagoitia told those attending the Alamosa meeting. “We are concerned with the trends. Numbers are points of reference.”
Steinhoff added there can be so much variation from one year to the next that she also looks for trends over time. CPW, formerly Colorado Division of Wildlife before its merger with parks, has been keeping big game population data since the 1980’s.
Steinhoff talked about how CPW determines population estimates and objectives. She also reviewed target and current numbers of big game in the Valley including elk, deer, bear, moose and pronghorn.
She said harvest surveys, which formerly were conducted by phone and are now also available on line, are part of the equation used to determine big game trends. Hunters are asked where they hunted, how long and if they harvested anything.
Some audience members at the March 12 meeting in Alamosa suggested the CPW should make hunter surveys mandatory so the CPW would have more data to work from. They said with surveys available on line, most people could complete them easily.
Steinhoff said that type of decision is made at the state level.
Hunters suggested a pilot project might be conducted in a part of the state to see if mandatory hunter surveys were worthwhile. Basagoitia said he would bring up the idea in the CPW staff meeting next week.
In addition to hunter surveys, CPW staff also conducts classification flights over the various game management units in the area. Classification flights to evaluate pronghorns were conducted in August and for deer and elk in January. Steinhoff said as much of the Valley as possible is flown but not all of it was covered this year. She said she tries to not miss more than one year in an area.
With these flights, Steinhoff is able to get an idea about the gender, age and size of big game herds.
Another tool to determine what is happening with big game is research. A radio collar elk project is ongoing in the San Juans, for example.
Steinhoff said harvest allocations for licenses are based on the trends CPW staff is seeing. It is better not to have drastic changes in licenses from year to year, she said. That makes it more stable for the big game populations as well as the hunters who are planning where and what they want to hunt.
She said hunter opportunity is a main objective for the wildlife staff in determining license allocations.
Big game trends
Following are Steinhoff’s overviews of the big game populations in the Valley:
With the black bear located on the west side of the Valley from Saguache to the New Mexico border, CPW’s goal is to keep the population stable, Steinhoff said. About 600 black bears are estimated in that area. Even though licenses were increased last year, “we are still below what we could be harvesting,” Steinhoff said, “because trends are showing that population is still increasing.”
On the east side of the Valley (Units 82 and 83), which is managed out of the Pueblo office, CPW’s objective is to decrease the population because the habitat is not sufficient to sustain the number of black bears in that area. Harvest data shows the efforts to decrease the population are working, Steinhoff said.
The Valley is one of the most southernmost moose habitats in all of America, Steinhoff said. The population a couple of years ago suffered an outbreak of brain worm, but the population is coming back, Steinhoff said.
“Trends are pointing to a growing moose population slowly over time.”
The classification flights in January showed more moose than had been apparent for a while, with quite a few calves. The estimated population is about 400 animals, which is approaching the 400-600 objective for the animal, Steinhoff said.
Only a handful of licenses are available for moose because the CPW does not want to pressure the moose too much because they are susceptible to disease, Steinhoff explained.
CPW staff is keeping a close watch on the pronghorns because of potential population pressures such as solar and oil/gas development, drought and predators such as coyotes. However, the population is growing, Steinhoff said, as evidenced by the above-average fawn/doe ratio.
The CPW objectives for the pronghorns on the north side of the Valley in the Saguache, Villa Grove and La Garita areas is 2,000-2,500, and last year the estimated population size was 2,400.
In 2012 99 bucks, 33 does and 5 fawns were harvested.
In the southern part of the Valley, Conejos, Costilla and southern Rio Grande Counties, the pronghorn population is smaller, Steinhoff explained, with about 1,000 animals estimated. The pronghorn in this area are “holding their own,” Steinhoff said with buck/doe ratios remaining stable. The harvest is minimal, with the most recent number showing 24 bucks and 0 does or fawns harvested.
In the Saguache area, the deer population was below where the CPW wanted to see it but was growing, and harvest numbers were down slightly.
Steinhoff said classification flights in the Saguache area found above average buck/doe ratios and above average fawn/doe ratios, which is a good sign. In most of the deer population around the state, fawn/doe ratios are dropping, Steinhoff said.
“Fortunately in the Valley we have deer populations that are maintaining themselves for the most part,” she said.
In units 76, 79 and 791, the population objective is 2,000-2,500 and the estimates are right in the middle, 2,300.
“That population seems to be maintaining its own,” Steinhoff said.
In units 80 and 81 the population is below where CPW wants it to be, but it is growing, Steinhoff said. The objective is 6,000-7,000, and the estimated population currently is about 5,800. Classification flights showed fawn/doe ratios doing well.
In Costilla County, the deer population is estimated at about 1,600 and increasing. CPW objectives are between 2,000 and 2,500.
In unit 82, covering the Sand Dunes and Villa Grove, the population should be 1,500-2,000 and is right around 1,800.
In that same area, unit 82, the elk are way over the CPW objective, Steinhoff said. The objective is 3,000-4,000, and the estimated population size in that region of the Valley is 4,900 animals.
One of the reasons for the overpopulation, Steinhoff explained, is there are so many areas like the national park and national wildlife refuges where hunters cannot touch the elk, so the elk tend to congregate there, at least during hunting season. If elk are concentrated in an area, the habitat might not be able to sustain them, so it is important to spread them out, not only for hunter opportunity but also for habitat and animal health, Steinhoff explained.
She said CPW is working with the park service to re-establish dispersal hunts.
The elk harvest numbers were down overall in this unit.
On the Valley floor between Highway 17 and 285, in units 682 and 791, the CPW’s goal is to have 0 elk because of the intense agricultural development in this area. The population is estimated at about 300.
CPW tries to disperse the elk out of this area, and Steinhoff said, “It is an ongoing battle.”
In the Saguache area (units 68 and 682), the objective population is 3,500-4,500, and the estimated population is right in the middle at about 3,800. Harvest in this area was down slightly overall, Steinhoff said. She added that there is migration between this area and Gunnison, just as there is migration of animals from Colorado to New Mexico and the west part of the Valley to Pagosa Springs.
On the west side of the Valley, in units 76 and 79, the objective for the elk population is 4,000-5,500, and last year the population was estimated at 4,800.
The elk population in units 80 and 81 was discussed earlier.
In unit 83, managed by Pueblo, the bull/cow ratio is low, but a research project is underway to try to improve that ratio.
License applications for deer, elk, pronghorn, moose, sheep, goat and bear are due Tuesday, April 2. Hunters are encouraged to apply online for licenses. See wildlife.state.co.us/