Hunting season has arrived in Colorado’s majestic wilderness, and hunters are gearing up for exciting adventures. Despite last winter’s historic snowfall affecting some of Colorado’s premier herds, this year promises some thrilling surprises for outdoor enthusiasts across the country.
The rugged landscapes of Colorado are home to an abundance of wildlife, from majestic elk roaming the mountains to elusive pronghorn sprinting across the plains. As hunters eagerly await the fall season, they can be excited about the prospect of bagging an animal that fills their freezer to the brim with delicious and valuable meat or gives them bragging rights with their buddies.
The state’s wildlife managers at Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) have continued to closely monitor various factors that could influence the hunting forecast, such as habitat and forage availability, male/female ratios, and the number of young that were born and survived. One of the factors that wildlife managers have been keeping a close eye on is the impact of recent severe winter conditions.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife manages populations in data analysis units (DAUs) which are the geographic areas that represent the year-round ranges of a big-game herds and includes all of the seasonal ranges of a specific herd. Each DAU is usually composed of several game management units (GMUs), but in some cases only one GMU makes up a DAU. GMUs help to distribute hunters across a DAU, allowing CPW to better manage opportunities during hunting seasons.
There is some overlap, but for the most part DAUs are located within our administrative regions: Northwest Region, Southwest Region, Northeast Region and the Southeast Region, generally encompassing their respective corners of the state.
Harsh Winter in the Northwest
Last winter, the Northwest Region experienced one of the harshest winters in decades, with relentless snowstorms and bone-chilling temperatures. Wildlife in the area endured a challenging period as food became scarce and they faced some of the most severe snow conditions residents had seen in the past 70 years.
“While we saw significant mortality in elk, deer and pronghorn in the severe winter zones from Rangely to Steamboat Springs and the Wyoming state line, much of northwest Colorado remained largely unaffected,” said Northwest Senior Terrestrial Biologist Brad Banulis. “Areas like the south half of White River National Forest, Glenwood Springs and Rifle fortunately didn’t really see as bad a winter as other areas.”
Banulis is confident CPW’s swift action in reducing license numbers for the area will have a positive impact on wildlife populations in the coming years.
“We are fortunate in the Northwest to have some of the largest elk and deer herds in the nation, which is due to having one of the larger intact landscapes in Colorado,” he said. “Animals were forced to go to the fringes of their winter range, but they could rebound pretty fast if we can continue to have some good moisture.”
Coincidentally, CPW was in the midst of a large-scale elk research study in the area, allowing them to closely monitor the effects this winter had on elk populations. The area, known for some of the largest elk herds in the nation, saw above-average calf and cow mortality, with survival rates at the lowest CPW has ever documented and below what the agency previously thought possible.
“In the northwest corner, some deer and elk migrated farther west than we have seen, and where they didn’t move, we saw pretty high losses. The animals that did move fared a lot better. And many deer and elk that moved, migrated back to their traditional ranges. With pronghorn, however, we saw significant losses, and many of them did not migrate back.”
Mule deer fared somewhat better than elk, with pronghorn faring the worst during this past winter. With CPW’s license reductions in the Northwest, hunters with a tag can expect good hunting opportunities, with fewer hunters in the area and many deer and elk to be found in their normal hunting locations, albeit at lower densities.
While CPW anticipates a rebound in the affected herds, it’s essential to remain cautious and not set unrealistic expectations for recovery timeframes. Given the severity of the impact on wildlife this winter, it may take several years for the herds to fully recover and regain their previous numbers.
Lands Spring Back to Life
With spring’s arrival, bountiful rain graced much of Colorado, bringing life back to lands parched by recent droughts and offering much-needed relief to the wildlife across the state. The once-dry foothills and prairies now showcase vibrant greenery, making them ideal habitats for many wildlife species. As hunters prepare to embark on their quests, they should be excited about the opportunities offered across the state.
“This previous winter had substantial impacts, particularly in the Northwest Region of the state, and the Southwest Region experienced above-average winter conditions as well,” said CPW Southwest Region Terrestrial Biologist Jamin Grigg. “Despite the challenging weather, most big-game herds in the Southwest made it through the winter in good condition. Survival rates for deer fawns, elk calves, and adult deer and elk were within normal ranges — which is promising news for hunters.”
As the summer rolled on, the Southwest Region benefited from the abundance of winter moisture and a wet spring which brought about above-average vegetation growth. The good forage on the ground bodes well for the upcoming hunting season. However, in July, the region experienced a substantial amount of hot and dry weather, prompting concerns among hunters. Rain in August and September is essential for ensuring more favorable hunting conditions this fall.
Grigg said to expect additional hunting pressure due to reduced license quotas and shorter over-the-counter season dates in the Northwest.
“We are expecting a crowded fall down here,” he said. “But the conditions of the herds in the Southwest are doing well after good winter survival and adequate moisture for most of the year. This is one of the better years we’ve seen in a long time as far as big-game population numbers.”
Predicting hunting conditions can be a daunting task, especially with variables such as weather and animal behavior. Snow levels are crucial for hunting success, especially for elk hunting, as they impact elk behavior and movements. Hunters are advised to keep a close eye on weather forecasts leading up to the big-game hunting seasons.
Much of eastern Colorado experienced an unusual winter last year, which remained dry until the very end. This resulted in minimal winterkill, and as we entered spring, residents witnessed the arrival of much-needed rain. The precipitation has been a significant boon for wildlife on the plains considering the region’s 10-year drought.
Challenging Monitoring Conditions
CPW biologists and district wildlife managers spend over a thousand hours each year conducting monitoring surveys to assess the health of Colorado’s big-game herds. And this dry winter on the Eastern Plains impacted CPW’s ability to effectively monitor wildlife populations.
“We conducted helicopter surveys during the dry period and, unfortunately, the lack of snow on the landscape affected visibility,” said Allen Vitt, CPW terrestrial biologist for Pueblo, Custer, Huerfano and western Las Animas counties. “Normally, with snow on the ground, it is easier to spot brown critters against the white background. We did not have that luxury this year.”
However, despite the limited visibility, CPW biologists observed average bull-cow ratios and cow-calf ratios. Pronghorn herds were not as robust as they were five to six years ago, which can be expected when accounting for the long-term impact of drought on their populations.
Hunters will see that reflected in the number of female licenses available on the Eastern Plains.
“As part of our herd-management plans, we have reduced elk licenses in some areas and pronghorn numbers in the Southeast Region,” Vitt said. “These decisions were influenced by poor pronghorn production over a significant period due to the drought, as well as addressing concerns about decreasing elk numbers in the region.”
Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)
Chronic wasting disease (CWD) continues to be a significant concern for wildlife managers across Colorado, as well as the rest of the country. The disease affects cervids, such as deer, elk and moose, and is caused by abnormal prion proteins that lead to neurological degeneration. CWD is a transmissible and fatal disease, with no known cure or vaccine, making its management critical for preserving the health and sustainability of wildlife populations.
“We must continually monitor CWD in the state,” said CPW Big Game Manager Andy Holland. “CWD distribution and prevalence have generally increased over time, and it is essential to keep a close eye on the disease’s spread to implement timely and effective management strategies.”
CWD testing results in Colorado have shown significantly higher prevalence rates in deer compared to elk, with bucks having been found to carry the disease at twice the rate of does. Older-age males have it at twice the prevalence of younger males as well.
Holland noted how hunters play a key role in supporting wildlife management efforts and how their participation in mandatory CWD testing initiatives are vital to wildlife managers’ ability to assess the prevalence of the disease and make data-driven decisions for management strategies.
“One of the only management tools we currently have at our disposal is the hunting community itself,” he said. “Hunters play a vital role in controlling CWD by harvesting deer and other cervids during hunting seasons. By reducing the population of older-age-class bucks we can help keep the prevalence of CWD in check,” Holland said.
As the primary tool for managing CWD, hunters are extremely important to maintaining population balances and minimizing the disease’s impact. While the concept of harvesting animals to control disease prevalence might seem counterintuitive, it has proven to be the most effective tool available at the moment.
Holland notes that it is essential for hunters to continue participating in CWD-testing initiatives and submit samples for analysis to help CPW understand the disease’s prevalence and distribution in the state as well as to evaluate if management strategies are working.
Big Game Season Structure (BGSS) Planning
Hunters can also contribute to wildlife management by providing valuable data through participation in programs such as the Big Game Season Structure (BGSS) planning process.
“The BGSS process involves evaluating current hunting season structures and comparing them with previous periods to identify potential improvements or changes,” Holland said. “The insights gained from public engagement in this process are instrumental to shaping hunting regulations and ensuring sustainable wildlife management.”
The BGSS process also addresses social concerns such as overcrowding in certain hunting areas.
“To mitigate potential crowding, we are currently evaluating over-the-counter elk hunting and considering limiting archery or rifle hunting in specific units. By making data-driven decisions, we aim to strike a balance between the widely varying interests of hunters, ensuring diverse hunting opportunities and maintaining the integrity of the hunting experience,” Holland said.
Public involvement is crucial in the BGSS process and other wildlife management initiatives. Wildlife enthusiasts, hunters and the general public can participate in discussions, share their experiences and provide valuable input during public scoping phases and meetings. Through such collaboration, CPW hopes to foster a more comprehensive understanding of the challenges and opportunities in wildlife management, leading to more effective and sustainable outcomes.
CPW recently launched EngageCPW.org, a website dedicated to allowing the public to easily explore current and upcoming projects, share ideas and feedback, and learn more about ways you can engage with CPW.
This fall, the overall hunting forecast remains positive for hunters despite the challenges posed by CWD and the severe winter of 2022–23.
Unpredictability is part of nature’s charm, and hunters can still enjoy the hunting experience, regardless of the success of their harvest. Whether it is exploring the vast wilderness, witnessing breathtaking landscapes or experiencing the thrill of tracking elusive game, hunting in Colorado remains a cherished tradition passed down through generations. As the fall hunting season approaches, the spirit of adventure remains alive in the heart of every hunter.
Hunters should remain dedicated to responsible hunting practices and wildlife conservation, and understand that their role in supporting wildlife management is vital to preserving Colorado’s rich natural heritage.
How does Holland feel about hunting prospects this year?
“I think the outlook is good and I’d be excited to hunt anywhere in Colorado. No matter where you have a license, I would tell people to go hunting, have fun and try their hand this year. I plan to put my money where my mouth is, and I am excited to go. You cannot control Mother Nature — all you can do is go out and hunt your hunt.”
Joseph Livingston is a Statewide Public Information Officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. He is based in Denver.