50% Decline in Eagle County Colorado's Elk Population Since 2007

3forks

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Oct 4, 2014
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I saw this article today, and thought it would be of interest to some on here:

Where has all the wildlife gone: CPW officials cite 50 percent drop in Eagle Valley’s elk population | VailDaily.com

EAGLE COUNTY — Imagine if, over a 10-year period, half of Eagle County's human population disappeared.

We would be using the terms "drastic," "alarming" and maybe even "catastrophic" to describe the situation.

During the past decade, that exact scenario has played out for one group of county residents. Today's elk population in the area — from Vail Pass to Glenwood Canyon — is 50 percent lower than it was in 2007. This precipitous drop has personnel from Colorado Parks and Wildlife concerned.

"I don't think people realize the dramatic amount the elk population has decreased," said Craig Wescoatt, wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

"The numbers we have counted have dropped some 50 (percent) to 60 percent in the last 10 years," Wescoatt said. "We are not seeing the animals migrate to another area or permanently move somewhere else. They are just dead and gone."

Bill Andree is also a CPW wildlife manager stationed in the area. He noted elk counts are done from helicopters in the winter, and during the census, managers record age and sex information about the animals. Based on the same number of flight hours with the same personnel doing the counting, the Vail Pass to Aspen count, south of Interstate 70, recorded 3,500 elk in 2006. In 2016, only 1,400 elk were sighted in the same area.

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Andree continued, noting that the aerial count numbers, combined with harvest data and winter condition information, is used to run a computer model that provides a population estimate. In 2002, an estimated 10,600 elk resided in the valley. By 2016, the number had dropped to an estimated 6,554 elk.

What's more, looking at the trend of elk calf production, the news is grim.

Previously, CPW's data showed numbers of roughly 50 calves per 100 cows. Those figures are now in the low 30s. CPW wildlife manager Bill Andree noted that at about 34 to 35 calves per 100 cows, its possible to maintain a herd. But with a herd that has already dropped by half, maintenance isn't the goal.

"The chance of numbers returning to the population of 2007 is pretty difficult," Andree said.

WHAT HAPPENED?

"There is no one, individual reason for this population decline," Andree continued.

Eagle County hasn't experienced a cataclysmic fire or a calamitous flood, for example. The area has seen drier conditions including drought in 2012, but a single drought year isn't a big enough event to wipe out half of the region's elk population. Likewise, the region has seen an increase in predatory issues with more mountain lions and bears moving to the area. But at most, the presence of more predators is a contributing factor to the elk population decline.

The biggest issue affecting the local elk population is disruption.

"It's not only that there are more people and more houses. There are more areas being used by people," Wescoatt said.

Recreationalists rejoice when they gain access to former ranch land, both for the opportunities the property itself offers and also for its gateway potential to federal lands. But what's great for people isn't great for wildlife.

Andree noted it is becoming increasingly difficult for animals to find respite from humans.

"People are out there all the time any more," he said. "There are people snowshoeing by moonlight and training for ultramarathons There is no time period when the animals don't have to compete with humans for habitat."

Wescoatt noted that communities throughout Eagle County promote ecotourism in an attempt to maximize local sales tax collections by marketing the natural environment.

"All that is well and good, but there is an impact that comes from that, as well," he said. "When it comes to wildlife, what does the public want to see happen?"

MANAGEMENT ISSUE

Because the local elk loss is a significant issue, the CPW is responding with the one tool at its disposal. The agency is reducing the number of antlerless elk hunting licenses available. Before 2007, there would be 2,000 or more cow elk permits available for the fall hunting license draw. This year, there will be fewer than 200 allocated.

The other tool CPW has is education. That means both letting people know about the problem and urging them to change behaviors that are a detriment to wildlife. It also means advocating for deer and elk when development plans are discussed.

"We all know what happens when you build your house somewhere. You want to recreate out your back door," Andree said. As a result of that thinking, houses and trails have sprouted south of I-70 and elk have disappeared.

"We are just starting to see those impacts on the north side of I-70, too," Wescoatt said.

Because local communities do value wildlife, various mitigation programs have been launched to address development impacts. At Eagle Ranch, for example, money collected from a real estate transfer tax is earmarked for wildlife mitigation. Both Andree and Wescoatt noted that more than $1 million has been spent on wildlife mitigation projects around Eagle, but those improvements have not stabilized the elk population loss. The town of Eagle has instituted seasonal closures on its popular open space trails, but people don't always comply with the rules.

And when it comes to owning up to the harm their actions are causing, recreationalists are likely to blame other groups for the problem.

HARASSMENT

Wescoatt and Andree said ignorance likely plays a big role in animal disturbance. People tend to think that harassing wildlife means chasing after them on ATVs or allowing a dog to run headlong into a herd. Yes, those are egregious examples, but they aren't the only ones.

"Just because you think you didn't bother wildlife doesn't mean you didn't," Andree said. "Not every animal runs away when approached."

Seasonal closures are instituted to protect pregnant cows at a time when their survival is tenuous. By late winter, food supplies are scare and cows need all the calories they can to birth a healthy calf and then produce the milk to feed it. If a cow is stressed out by nearby snowshoers, cross-country skiers or early-season mountain bikers, then that interaction will take a toll on both the cow and calf's mortality chances.

Some local organizations are stepping up to help educate the public about the reasoning for seasonal closures and to police trailheads, Wescoatt and Andree noted. That's a start.

In the bigger picture, if elk are going to survive in Eagle County, there needs to be land set aside for wildlife that is off limits to humans.

"Solitude and space are necessities for wildlife herds," Wescoatt said.

That's not an easy sell in a valley where recreation rules.

But as Andree noted, there is a carrying capacity for various environments. There is only so much water available in the Colorado River, for example, and people know they can't plan for more use than what's flowing in the riverbed. There is only so much land in Eagle County, and at some point people will have to determine if they value wildlife enough to make sure there is room for elk and deer herds in this valley.

"How many miles of trails and development is enough? Sooner or later, you are going to have to say 'no more,'" Andree said.

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gbflyer

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Thanks for posting that. I think this is a problem that will continue in W. CO. Fairly cheap land by CA standards and everyone wants a piece. The animals get no respite from human pressure, whether that’s Bubba on an ATV or the Lycra-Spandex clad mountain bikers. Couple that with USFS and BLM penchant for overgrazing, and we have the makings for nothing left but giant prairie dog towns within the next 25 years. Sad.
 
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3forks

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Thanks for posting that. I think this is a problem that will continue in W. CO. Fairly cheap land by CA standards and everyone wants a piece. The animals get no respite from human pressure, whether that’s Bubba on an ATV or the Lycra-Spandex clad mountain bikers. Couple that with USFS and BLM penchant for overgrazing, and we have the makings for nothing left but giant prairie dog towns within the next 25 years. Sad.

I tend to agree with you.

in addition to what you stated, Governor Hickenlooper's Colorado the Beautiful's initiative (envisions every Colorado resident living 10 minutes from a trail, park or other green space) seems to be at opposition to what CPW believes is best for the state's wildlife.
 

Ucsdryder

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I wonder what the bear population looks like and how it’s grown since th spring bear season has gone away? Might have something to do with the calving issues.
 

Gorp2007

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I'd also be interested in seeing what they consider to be a healthy, sustainable population in the area. Whenever people talk about the drop in a number of animals in an area, I always wonder if that peak number was actually healthy or if the decrease is part of a natural trend down towards a healthier population.
 

fightthenoise

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They touch on this on this week’s episode of Meateater podcast. The guest is a Colorado game warden.


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RallySquirrel

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I spoke to the game wardens in the counties to the south and to the west this spring and they said the same things. One went so far as to say, "Look, you outta staters pay my bills but if it was my money, I would find somewhere else to go. I sent some personal friends to a place that I know has historically held elk and they never saw one." He said he had been the ranger in that unit for 40 years. AND, he felt like it was all the recreational folks who are causing these issues just as the article eluded too.
 

johnhenry

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We humans need to stop building new trails and new roads. We have enough already. We don't need more. The number of people in these here mountains is insane now. And the mountain bikers and the ultra athletes just want more and more trails. Also the communities just keep selling the wilderness to make a few short term bucks and create low paying part time seasonal jobs and ultra high property values and well they place is going to hell in a hand basket and the animals are paying the price.
 

johnhenry

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I'd also be interested in seeing what they consider to be a healthy, sustainable population in the area. Whenever people talk about the drop in a number of animals in an area, I always wonder if that peak number was actually healthy or if the decrease is part of a natural trend down towards a healthier population.

We are way way past a healthly sustainable popluation here in western Colorado and the entire world. Oh wait, sorry, you were talking about Elk.
 

Ftguides

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First, I can tell you for a fact that Eagle County's elk population has fallen more than 50% in the past ten years. It's closer to 75%. Second, there is absolutely zero possibility that the calf/cow ratio, anywhere in the county, is 30/100. It's more like 12-17.

Yes, the additional land use by folks does affect the elk and is a contributing factor. However, my personal belief is that negative impact is way overblown in relation to piss poor management over the past decade (extreme over female harvest) and a complete lack of addressing the bear issue.

The academic research on the negative impact on elk due to non-hunting human interaction, isn't that great. If you are below habitat carrying capacity (I'd argue 99% of Eagle County is), the effect is marginal. This is particularly the case once animals become habituated. Some decent academic work out there, but you can also go count calves in the middle of the town of Estes Park to get a feel for things. It's pretty clear human interaction isn't the end-all of elk fertility. However, there is some great research on bears and their effect on cow/calf rations. Google "Predator prey relationships between rocky mountain elk and black bears... in New Mexico", for some robust and recent research.

If you want to buy CPW's argument, consider a couple things. 1) All the elk herds in Eagle County are declining and experiencing low calf/cow ratios. This includes a couple segments that have very little human interaction (outside of hunting) on both Summer and Winter Ranges. 2) I count a lot of elk via a spotting scope in Eagle County. By August 1st, we have been looking at sub-20/100 calf ratios.

Regarding #1 - If human interaction was the real issue, why are remote herds trending the same way? Regarding #2 - The cows are getting bred and calving. Within two months of calving, 70-80% of those calves are dead. Start reading about bear predation on elk, and the significant contributing factor is pretty obvious.

The last thing I will say is that big game management in Colorado has been steered away from predator management, in a serious way, over the past 15 years. I personally believe that the land-use argument is a way for CPW to pass the buck to the BLM and USFS land managers, without taking on the real problem themselves. For many decades, Colorado managed their elk herds to produce an insane amount of opportunity for hunters across this country. Unfortunately, tough politics and a lack of stating the real facts is hampering the future of that success story.
 
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Shaverdan

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Man I spent a lot of time studying the maps dead center of this area and was planning on my first western bowhunt there this fall. Thanks for posting, looking like I need to continue the search.
 

AGPank

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I haven’t looked at the stats, but guess it’s a statewide issue? I hunt unit 12 and the population decline is clear. I hunt a property with lots of cover, food, and water. I used to see nerds of 20-30 animals, but now 4-6 is the norm. The unit is even on restricted licenses the last several years. The white river herd at one time was the largest in the USA.
 

mproberts

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I hunted in Holy Cross Wilderness two years ago and didn’t see or hear an elk in a week of hunting... that must have been it lol. On a serious note could CWD be a contributing factor as well? Honestly the human disturbance thing seems overblown to me, you are talking about prey animals.
 

Ftguides

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I hunted in Holy Cross Wilderness two years ago and didn’t see or hear an elk in a week of hunting... that must have been it lol. On a serious note could CWD be a contributing factor as well? Honestly the human disturbance thing seems overblown to me, you are talking about prey animals.

CWD does exist in Eagle and surrounding counties, but I've never seen an animal showing symptoms. I've been involved in the harvest of hundreds of animals there over the past decade. I understand they can carry it without showing symptoms. However, if it was taking a significant toll on population, I'd have seen the signs of that death and at least some animals that are symptomatic.
 

sndmn11

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I have thought for a while now that those who harvest a bear, should get the option to add a preference point for two species of their choice.
 

chasewild

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1. Trails everywhere and constant use is never beneficial to a hunted population of elk/deer/etc.

2. Maybe instead of complaining about predator control, we start hunting bears with the vigor we hunt elk? How many posts do we see about "first bear hunt, any help appreciated?"

Just thinking of how to eliminate variables.
 

ckleeves

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Montrose,Colorado
I think Ftguides nailed it with the predator issue. We have been seeing bear numbers explode the past 10 years, and bears in places that we rarely saw them in the past. Bears in low piñon-juniper country, farmland, above timberline etc. I don’t think the CPW bear population estimates are even close to accurate.

The other fact of the matter is that bears are hard to hunt in Colorado. I think they need to make it to where you can use a unfilled deer or elk tag on a bear. Lots of guys have random encounters with bears while hunting, but for a lot of guys (non-res especially) putting out the money for a bear tag hoping for a chance encounter isn’t something they are interested in. I can’t blame them one bit either. 351.00 is a lot of money for a low % chance at a bear. For this to happen though CPW has to first admit the bear problem.
 
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