Hundreds of Colorados elk will wear GPS collars, hunting of cows to be controlled, as CPW fights to reverse herd decline

Colorado wildlife managers are mobilizing to reverse a decline of elk in the southwestern quarter of the state by controlling hunting and protecting wild habitat, aiming for increased calf survival amid intensifying droughts and development.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife crews also are launching an unprecedented statewide elk monitoring program. They’ll round up “several hundred” elk and fit them with global positioning satellite collars, giving multiple locations each day for each animal, CPW senior biologist Jamin Grigg said.

Colorado’s overall elk population remains larger than in any other state. State leaders see that as big business and celebrate the shrill bugling of bulls. A recent CPW study found hunting and fishing generate $1.8 billion a year for Colorado’s economy – with elk playing key roles 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, down from 41,900 in 2014 (22,435 bulls and 17,284 cows).

Back in the early 1900s, unregulated hunting decreased elk numbers to 40,000 nationwide. Colorado now has an estimated 308,901 elk, according to CPW’s latest records.

But in southwestern Colorado elk have been decreasing for two decades from more than 140,000 to around 122,000 – raising concerns.  Elk calf survival rates south of Interstate 70 are estimated at 30 or so per 100 cows,  compared with rates in northwestern Colorado near Craig and Steamboat Springs around 58 calves per 100 cows.

State wildlife managers control herds by limiting hunting licenses they make available for killing cow elk, seen as essential for expanding herds.

“How we either grow a herd or reduce a herd – cow harvest is our main tool for doing that,” Grigg said. “For the last 18 years, we’ve been reducing cow harvest across the state, including the southwestern part of the state. As we’ve seen reduced calf survival, we have had to reduce cow harvest. We have significantly reduced cow harvest already in an attempt to allow these herds to rebound.”

For example, hunting licensing for typical herds in southwestern Colorado that allowed harvesting 2,000 cows two decades ago now typically allows harvesting fewer than 200, Grigg said. “We cannot reduce it a whole lot more.”

A priority of helping more calves survive drives the fine-tuning of new herd management plans in the works — expected to be finalized early next year. These plans cover 14 herds across southwestern Colorado in areas that 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 the northern San Luis Valley. Draft plans for 11 areas would be extended through 2033, and outdated plans for the Uncompahgre Plateau, Paradox and East Gunnison Basin herds are to be updated to increase the emphasis on boosting numbers.

CPW crews also are conducting research into why more calves aren’t surviving.

Hunting advocacy groups in public comments so far largely have supported CPW efforts. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation favors a shift away from unlimited over-the-counter sales of hunting licenses toward regulated issuance of tags and also, where necessary, restriction of access aimed at preserving wild habitat, said John Sand, the RMEF’s Colorado chairman.

“It is safe to say that, if the herds are declining, CPW is going to cut back on the allowable tags in those areas,” Sand said.

“One of our main goals is to keep wild habitat wild,” Sand said. “It’s very urgent, something we need to do and have been trying to do. The more places we can keep wild, the more conservation easements we can put in place, the better off we are.”

The forces impeding elk survival include loss of habitat and degradation due to roads, traffic, energy development, and increased residential and commercial construction along migration routes. Surging recreational activities in western Colorado also complicates elk survival.

State and federal ecologists point to climate warming as a factor, favoring hot and dry conditions that reduce vegetation elk in southwestern Colorado need. Aridity in some areas is shrinking vegetation that elk eat and that provides cover for calves facing predators: coyotes, bears and mountain lions.

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Wolves may arrive. Colorado voters in 2020 narrowly passed a ballot measure ordering CPW to re-establish gray wolves west of the Continental Divide. The agency is studying how best to comply.

Wolves prey on elk.

The impact on herd numbers is uncertain.

“It remains to be seen,” Grigg said. “We certainly expect wolves could have localized impacts here and there. And we will adjust our management based on that. We will be monitoring both the wolf population and the wolf population’s effects on ungulate populations such as elk.”

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