Looking at the landscape today, it’s hard to believe this past winter was the worst we have seen in the past 70 years for the northwest corner of the state, specifically Moffat and Rio Blanco counties. Even surpassing the severe winter of 1983-84. Prolonged snow events leading to record snow depths combined with strong, gusty winds made an already hard time of year for wildlife even more challenging. Covered by deep, hard-packed snow, food was extremely difficult to find for elk, mule deer, and pronghorn. That forced thousands of animals to migrate farther west than they typically do, burning much-needed fat critical for winter survival.
While some areas in Browns Park and Rangely saw improvement in early spring, winter conditions persisted throughout March and into April for much of the area. Local staff maintained weekly meetings to evaluate snow conditions and real-time survival rates of GPS-collared animals in what Colorado Parks and Wildlife refers to as the severe winter range zone. Using the data collected and aerial flights throughout the spring, staff made unprecedented license reduction recommendations within this severe winter zone to account for high mortality rates experienced by mule deer, elk and pronghorn.
“This winter has been historic in many ways,” said Meeker Area Terrestrial Biologist Darby Finley. “These recommendations were not easy to make, and we know they will impact more than just CPW. However, we believe these substantial reductions in licenses will allow herds to recover as quickly as possible.”
Today, vegetation once covered by snow is now exposed and soaking up much-needed water after several years of drought. Mule deer, elk and pronghorn are on the move again, making their way back east to summer habitat and enjoying green forage along the way.
During the May 3 Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission (Commission) meeting in Glenwood Springs, Meeker area staff gave a short presentation detailing the winter conditions and provided updates on herd health for mule deer, elk, and pronghorn in that area. Following the Northwest Colorado winter 2022-23 presentation, CPW Big Game Manager Andy Holland presented the recommended licenses and state of the herds update to the Commission.
In an area known for some of the largest elk herds in the nation, severe winter conditions have resulted in high elk calf and above-average cow mortality. Survival rates are the lowest Colorado Parks and Wildlife has ever documented and below what we previously thought possible in elk.
At the May 3 PWC meeting in Glenwood Springs, staff recommended antlerless elk licenses be reduced in E-2 (Bears Ears) by 5,600 (-89%) with all public cow hunts reduced to the minimum of 10 licenses per hunt code. For E-6 (White River) staff recommended a reduction of 8,700 (-63%) antlerless licenses. For E-21 (Rangely) the reduction is 400 (-60%) antlerless licenses.
Approved Modifications – SEASON DATE CHANGES
Affected Game Management Units
- Bears Ears (E-2): 3, 4, 5, 14, 214, 301, 441
- White River (E-6): 11, 12, 13, 23, 24, 131, 211, 231
In addition to approving license recommendations, the Commission amended and approved a shortened, five-day over-the-counter (OTC) bull elk season for Game Management Units (GMUs) in the E-2 (Bears Ears) and select GMUs in E-6 (White River) elk herds. This amendment shortened the second OTC rifle bull elk season from nine days to five days and the third OTC rifle season from seven to five days.
Second and third combined rifle season dates for Over-the-Counter (OTC) bull licenses valid for private and public lands have been shortened to five days for the following.
IMPORTANT CHANGE: New Season Dates
- Second Season – Oct 28 – Nov. 1 (hunt code: EM-000-U2-R)
- Third Season – Nov. 11 -15 (hunt code: EM-000-U3-R)
These changes do not affect limited cow elk, deer, or pronghorn license holder season dates, or Over-the-Counter (OTC) bull hunting in GMUs 25, 26, 33, and 34 within DAU E-6.
Archery and Muzzleloader Licenses
In addition, the Commission reduced limited archery and muzzleloader either-sex license numbers for the E-2 (Bears Ears) elk herd by 25%. The following are the approved 25% reductions to Archery and Muzzleloader either-sex licenses in E-2. Only the number of licenses issued has changed. Dates for archery and muzzleloader season in these hunt codes remain the same.
- Hunt Code EE-004-O1-A reduced to 375 (from 500)
- Hunt Code EE-004-O1-M reduced to 100 (from 130)
- Hunt Code EE-014-O1-M reduced to 150 (from 200)
Mule Deer licenses
While mule deer have fared somewhat better than elk and pronghorn, the combination of severe winter conditions and high prevalence of chronic wasting disease has affected the resiliency of this population. This, in combination with an already decreased population over the last several years, has prompted CPW to reduce male and either-sex deer licenses by 5,000 (-48%) combined in D-2 (Bears Ears), D-6 (Rangely), and D-7 (White River). Female licenses are reduced by 2,900 (-94%) combined and to the minimum of 10 licenses per hunt code in D-2 (Bears Ears) and D-7 (White River).
Pronghorn fared the worst during this winter, with mortality starting in December. Poor winter habitat conditions, little to no food sources, and increased wildlife-vehicle collisions led to higher-than-normal mortality rates.
Pronghorn male and female license quotas are reduced to the minimum of 10 per hunt code. The minimum of 10 licenses per hunt code is required to populate statutory and regulatory license bins such as Landowner Preference Program, youth license quotas and nonresident license allocations. Male licenses are reduced by 1,100 (-74%) and female licenses are reduced by 700 (-83%) combined for all DAUs. The affected herds include Great Divide (GMUs 3,4,5,13,14,131,214,301 & 441), Maybell (GMU 11), Sand Wash (GMUs 1,2, & 201), and Axial Basin (GMUs 12, 23, & 211)
“This winter is a great example of why CPW sets license quota recommendations in late spring,” said Northwest Region Senior Terrestrial Biologist Brad Banulis. “Using data and biological information we collect from late fall through early spring, we are able to evaluate conditions and make the best license recommendations to meet herd management objectives.”
How the annual hunting license setting process works
Each year, using established Herd Management Plans (HMP), harvest data collected from previous year’s hunting season, classification flights done in the late fall and winter and collar data collected from deer and elk in select DAU’s, regional and area terrestrial biologists meet with local staff to establish recommendations for that hunting season’s licenses. These recommendations are then presented to the Commission for consideration. The Commission has the authority to modify and approve recommendations. This process is repeated annually to ensure objectives of the HMPs are met.
Key components of the Herd Management Plans are the number of animals each herd can support and what is the desired sex ratio for the population of big game animals (e.g., the number of males per 100 females). The selection of population and sex ratio objectives drive important decisions in the big game season setting process, such as how many animals should be harvested to maintain or move toward the objectives.
Learn more about the 2022-2023 winter in Northwest Colorado and Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s response at Colorado Magazine online two part story on the power of collaboration and surviving today and after the snow melts.
Written by Rachael Gonzales. Rachael is the public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s northwest region.