Loss of elk calves puzzles state biologists

Elk cow:calf ratios

This graph from Colorado Parks and Wildlife shows the trend in cow/calf ratios across the state. Biologists says at least 40 calves are needed to build an elk herd. Story by Dave Buchanan

The continuing drop in elk-calf survival rates in southern Colorado continues to trouble biologists from Colorado Parks and Wildlife. There as yet is no known or recognized cause for the loss of calf elk across the southern half of western Colorado, a trend that appears to expanding north.

Research shows the calves are being born but fail to survive into the next summer.

Andy Holland, state big-game manager for Parks and Wildlife, said biologist aren’t sure what’s causing the decline in calf numbers. During a presentation earlier this month to the Colorado Wildlife Commission, Holland showed a graph illuminating a distinct north-to-south trend in declining cow/calf ratios.

“Typically northern Colorado elk herds have 10 calves per 100 cows higher than southern Colorado,” Holland said. “The gap in the last five years grew to about 20 calves per 100 cows, something that really concerned us.”

The graph seen elsewhere on this page illustrates the gap between southern elk herds, which may have fewer than 32 calves per 100 cows, and northern herds, where some areas are seeing upwards of 52 calves per 100 cows. Biologists say it takes a least 40 calves each year provide enough production to grow an elk herd.

“Below 40 it starts to get hit or miss,” Brad Petch, CPW’s senior terrestrial wildlife biologist for the Northwest Region, said. “Below 30 you get to the point where you are not getting enough production and not growing an elk herd.”

The loss of calves isn’t spread evenly across the state. Some mid-state elk herds, such as the Fryingpan River and Eagle Valley herds, are showing drops in calf post-hunt survival lower than farther south.

Because of this, the Fryingpan River herd had cow licenses this year reduced to the allowable minimum of 10 licenses per hunt code. This is the first time any unit has seen licenses cut to the bone.

“This herd has just not responded to our license reductions,” Holland said. “If you would have talked to most of us 10 or 15 years ago, we would never have thought we’d see that in Colorado.”

The agency currently is in the second year of research in what may be causing the drop in calf numbers.



Cut in elk licenses continues as herds edge closer to objectives

Elk apps and licenses

The gap between elk licenses availability and demand continues to grow as Colorado Parks and Wildlife gets elk herds numbers closer to population objectives. Cow-elk licenses this year were reduced by 4,000. Story by Dave Buchanan, art courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

First, a correction to an earlier column: I had the dates wrong (by a month!) for the results of the big-game limited license draw.

Results will be posted June 4-8 on the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website at www.CPWSHOP.com. I’m not sure if the site is case sensitive, but give it a try both ways. I’m sure CPW agents and officers were pleased to see me publish out the wrong dates.

As soon as the results are posted, there are bound to be some unhappy hunters, for several reasons. Primarily, license applications vastly outnumber the licenses available.

“We had 690,000 applicants and we had 250,00 limited licenses,” Andy Holland, Big Game Manager for Parks and Wildlife, said. “That’s total licenses, including deer, elk, pronghorn and moose, but you get the idea. Demand far outweighs supply.”

Speaking earlier this month during the Parks and Wildlife Commission’s May meeting in Grand Junction, Holland told the commission and audience that setting license recommendations “is one of the most important things our agency does.”

He noted that the quarter-million limited licenses available this year amount to 1,200 fewer than 2017 and while there are increases in deer, pronghorn and moose tags, that’s more than offset by a sharp decrease in elk licenses.

“So, on balance the increase won’t overcome the reductions in elk licenses,” Holland explained. There will be 5,600 fewer elk licenses issued this year compared to 2017.

License numbers are set through herd management plans based on established management areas across the state. These plans, which include biological and social population objectives, are “designed to meet those objectives” using public input, Holland said. “The most important place for public involvement is in the herd management plans,” he emphasized.


Colorado attracts thousands of deer hunters each year and this year likely will be no exception. “Last year, we had 186,00 applicants for deer licenses and we have seen steady growth in the deer applicant demands,” Holland said. “We’re one of, if not the, premier mule-deer hunting states in the west.”

Deer apps per year

Deer herds and license numbers are showing some recovery after the hard winter of 2007/2008 but license demand still far outruns supply.

There will be 94,900 mule-deer licenses offered this year, up 2,700 from 2017. That includes 52,00 buck licenses, up 1,600 over 2017. The increase in licenses reflects a steady upward trend after the severe winter of 2007/2008 seriously curtailed licenses in following years.

“West slope-wide you can see what one severe winter does to our licenses,” Holland said, a graph showing licenses, which peaked at around 125,000 in 2007, bottomed at around 80,000 in 2012 before beginning the gradual upward trend continuing this year. “We want hunters to have the opportunity to harvest those deer before we lose them to predators, disease or the next bad winter.”

He said the estimated statewide deer population is around 419,000.

“The population objective range is 455,000 to 492,000 so we’re still significantly below where we’d like to be on deer population size,” he noted.


Colorado each year sees about 200,000 applicants for the limited elk tags, Holland said. However, he tempered that by saying “we’re on a 16-year declining trend in elk license numbers.”

Elk herds topped out at around 305,000 in the early 2000s, a number most people agreed was too high, and since then the agency has made strides in bringing the herds down to desired population objectives.

“Now we are working off a smaller population size and more of our herds are at or near the objective desired,” Holland told the commission. “When you’re at or near your objective you have the ability to harvest fewer cow elk.”

Current elk population is estimated at 282,000, about the same as 2017. This year’s license recommendation calls for 127,600 total, which is 5,600 fewer than 2018 and most of these lost licenses (4,300) come from the northwest region.

With most herds now at or near population objectives, fewer cow licenses are being offered. This year, cow elk licenses statewide were cut by 4,000.


With an estimated record population of 85,600 animals, pronghorn are almost 20,000 animals over the desired objective.

“The pronghorn population statewide is increasing, the only one of the species I’m presenting today that is increasing,” Holland said. The largest herd is in the Great Divide area near Craig and numbers about 21,000 pronghorn.

“Fawn/doe ratios have been high the last few years, they are very in tune with moisture,” Holland said. “We’ll see what happens this year as its relates to moisture, particularly in southeast Colorado. If we don’t get moisture, this above-objective situation may be addressed biologically.”


Moose licenses are up this year, 452 compared to 415 in 2017.

“Last year we had 26,000 applications for the 415 license we had,” Holland said. “Moose and CPW are doing their best to accommodate the demands for those 26,000 people.”

Bull license total 190, up 37 from 2017, and cow license are up 18 to 262. There now is moose hunting in 62 game units, up from the 39 as recent as 2013. Current population estimate is 3,100 moose statewide.

Less than a month of real winter and already it’s ‘A winter to remember’

IMG_7986 2

Ski conditions at County Line and Skyway Nordic areas have improved a bit since this photo was taken 10 days ago and the trail work done in recent years by the Grand Mesa Nordic Council will help immensely when snow does come.

If you’ve been following the recent weather trend, it’s apparent the last month or so has been somewhat out of the normal when it comes to snowpack and average daily temperature. That’s true whether it’s too much snow and cold in the East or not enough snow and not enough cold in the West. It’s enough to make many of us remember the winter of 1976/77.

Here, we offer a link to John Orr’s blog and his recent presentation of what writer Allen Best (whose site Mountain Town News is well worth following) is calling a winter to remember but not why you might think. Best’s original story, posted Jan. 5, is here.



A Christmas wish for the Bears Ears

122017 OUT column Moke Dugway

The Moki Dugway snakes 1,100 feet down the south face of Cedar Mesa in southeast Utah a few mile south of  the Bears Ears National Monument. Built in 1958 by a mining company to haul uranium ore to the mill in Mexican Hat, the road includes three miles of well-maintained unpaved road and is passable by passenger cars.

With Christmas close at hand, that “short list” of things to do no longer seems so short. Among all the buying and spending and gift wrapping (and calling the taxidermist to check on that elk shoulder mount), there still is that matter of “wishing upon a star.”

Those of us in western Colorado are blessed with stars aplenty to wish upon, although skiers and boarders and those who cater to such might be wishing for an overcast and white Christmas Eve.

Wishes. Elk hunters might be wishing for a lucky draw and hoping Santa drops off a few extra preference points. Anglers might be dreaming of a spring runoff strong and fast, finishing by the time the salmonflies are flying over the Gunnison River.

But most of us who live in fly-over country are wishing for this:

That those who represent us in the legislative halls, especially those sequestered in the concrete canyons of Washington, D.C., never forget what it is that makes this land so special.

And why this region we call home needs added protection.

122017 OUT Column Bears Ears

Geologic place names seldom get it as right as it with the Bears Ears, twin buttes of Wingate sandstone on the north edge of Cedar Mesa. They also lend their name to one of America’s newest national monuments, one that faces drastic changes at the hands of the Trump administration.

A canyon country (factual) Christmas tale: In the winter of 1879, leaving behind the rest of the Hole-In-The-Rock expedition, four brave men plunged into the complex slick-rock canyon country of southeast Utah, seeking a route to Montezuma Creek.

What initially was planned as an eight-day trek had become several times that when, on Christmas Day 1879, lost, out of food and surviving mostly on hope, they climbed an otherwise unremarkable point now known as Salvation Knoll on the north edge of Cedar Mesa.

From there, the scouts spotted the Blue (Abajo) Mountains, regaining their bearings and their hope.

The fascinating story of this Mormon expedition is well-documented and today travelers along Utah State Route 95 west of Blanding cross the scouts’ trail at mile marker 97. There, you can read historical markers and hike a short trail built by descendants of the Hole-In-The-Rock families to the top of Salvation Knoll where you are reminded that all is not lost, even when conditions seem dire.

It may not be a coincidence that Salvation Knoll is within a few miles of the Bears Ears, those curiously identical buttes of Wingate sandstone that for uncounted centuries have kept travelers on their right path.

We often share the sentiments of Norwood-based author Craig Childs, whose astutely contemplative writing on the interplay of nature and humans has secured him a large and faithful audience throughout western Colorado and elsewhere.

In a recent Facebook post, Childs penned an open letter to Rep. Scott Tipton, representing Colorado’s Congressional Third District, imploring Tipton “to remember home. Think about what it means to stand on dusty ground, to feel what is over every horizon.”

Much of what Childs was speaking touched on the recent decision by Pres. Donald Trump to reduce drastically the size of Bears Ears and Escalante-Grand Staircase national monuments.

In the case of the Bears Ears, the acreage is to be slashed by 85 percent to just more than 200,000 acres while carving out of protected status hundreds if not thousands of fragile archeological sites representing the cultural heritage of southeastern Utah.

The long view

A view across Cedar Mesa, where in the winter of 1879-1880 an expedition from the Church of Latter Day Saints carved a path from Escalante to Mexican Hat. It’s been reported that during the arduous six-month journey, no one died and two babies were born.

Reflecting on Childs’ words, it’s clear the deep-seated sentiments he invokes are not limited solely to the dismantling of these mostly wild places where ancient peoples once roamed and where their descendants today live and worship. He also expresses concern for the entire “wealth of public and protected lands” across the West that safeguard natural and cultural resources for tomorrow’s generations.

As Land Tawney, president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, recently said, “the changes to the two Utah monuments would negatively impact key fish and wildlife habitat, reduce outdoor opportunities important to sportsmen and critical to local economies, and undermine a bedrock conservation law, the Antiquities Act, that has enabled the long-term protection of millions of acres.”

Among those protected resources are landcapes unparalleled in North America, from the serpentine Moki Dugway, snaking off the precipitous face of Cedar Mesa a few miles north of Mexican Hat, Utah, to the contrast of desert slot canyons and alpine meadows a few miles apart.

This land of elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer, black bear, mountain lions and other wildlife also is home to hikers, climbers, river-runners, birders, bikers and star-gazers.

And for all that, this year’s Christmas wishes must carry a special wish for those who make the ultimate decisions of how this and all public land is managed.

So we again turn to Craig Childs, who noted that Tipton and his colleagues must find Washington D.C. “consuming at times, (making it) easy to forget where you came from and what deeply, viscerally matters to the people of the West.

“I admire anyone who can go into the fray like you and do the hard work, but don’t get lost out there,” Childs cautions.

“As you lean toward bills that would limit our ability to protect lands through the Antiquities Act or otherwise, I ask you to remember home. … Remember where you came from, and all of us out here on this bluebird morning, glad for what we have.”

(Ed. note: The comments from Craig Childs were used with his permission. His most-recently published book, Flying Home, is now available.)



Outdoor retailers continue fight to keep public lands in public hands

CEdar Mesa pictographs BLM

The 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah protects one of most significant cultural landscapes in the United States. Photo: Bob Wick, BLM

As the Trump administration continues its push to reduce or eliminate 26 national monuments, a move viewed by outdoors enthusiasts as a blow against all public lands, many outdoor products companies are taking a stand in defense of the monuments and  voicing support for public lands. Read the story here.

And don’t forget to enjoy your public heritage Saturday, Sept. 30, on National Public Lands Day. It’s a free days at federal recreation sites and many state sites. If you want to take an active role in your lands, many private, state and federal organizations are sponsoring demonstrations and volunteer on-the-ground work days. Call your favorite group or check the National Environmental Education Foundation website for a list of opportunites.

Among those groups getting dirty on Sept. 30 is the Grand Mesa Nordic Council, which

skyway trail sign

One of the new trail signs gracing  the Grand Mesa Nordic trails. Photo: GMNC

recently received a $6,000 grant from the Grand Junction REI store as part of the partnership between the two. Some of the grant is paying for the dozens of new signs marking trailheads and trail junctions along the estimated 31 miles of trails and part of the money will help pay for ski-trail grooming, said GMNC president Winslow Robertson.

“REI has been a great to work with and this grant will help us to continue to improve the skiing experience,” Robertson said. “It costs us about $4,000 per week during the season to groom the trails and this will augment the money from GMNC members.”

The Grand Mesa Nordic system is one of the few in the U.S. not charging a use fee.

The Nordic Council and REI are collaborating for a trail work day Sept. 30 on Grand Mesa to mark National Public Lands Day. Volunteers will be putting put up new trails signs and clearing trails of branches, rocks and debris. Information is available here.

Four named to state wildlife commission; funding tops the list

032716 OUT buck deep snow sized

Wildlife management has many facets and none of it is free. Hunting and fishing licenses still pay two-thirds of the bills for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. 

Gov. John Hickenlooper has added four new members, three from the Western Slope, to the Colorado Wildlife Commission.

Among the newest members of the 11-person panel are former Grand Junction mayor Jim Spehar; Carrie Besnette Hauser, president and CEO of Colorado Community College in Glenwood Springs; Marie E. Haskett, owner of JML Outfitters near Meeker, the 2016 COA Outfitter of the Year; and Xcel Energy vice-president Marvin Edward McDaniel of Sedalia. Read the entire news release here.

The biggest challenge facing the wildlife commission is what the agency terms “the uncertain outlook for hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation in the face of severe funding challenges.”

It’s not just fewer fish stocked in lakes and streams or the possible loss of access to walk-in hunting and fishing areas or maybe curtailing or closing state parks. It’s what Northwest Regional Manager JT Romatzke described as the potential loss of  “a critical part of Colorado’s heritage.”

This summer, CPW leadership has been hosting a series of meeting statewide to discuss funding options after a proposal to increase the cost of hunting and fishing license and raise park fees was killed last May in the Senate Finance Committee.

It’s no secret Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which has not had a fee increase in 12 years, is operating on a deficit and since 2009 has lost 50 positions and cut $40 million from its operating budget.

“Operating with a strained budget is not just a problem for the agency, it’s a problem for everyone in this state, whether you hunt, hike, fish, camp or boat, or depend on the revenue these activities generate for businesses and the state’s economy,” Katie Lanter,  Policy and Planning Supervisor for Parks and Wildlife, said in a CPW statement. “The public will need to be heavily involved and help decide how the management of some of Colorado’s most important natural resources will be funded so they will be available for future generations.”

The agency gets no general-fund tax dollars. Funding comes mostly from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and a smaller portion a share of the lottery and restricted federal excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment.

Lanter said that funding “is only one natural resource management challenge” facing the CPW. There also is the prospect that Colorado’s population may grow by 25 million people in the next 25 years, adding to the pressure already felt by wildlife and state recreation areas. And of that population growth, it’s expected that by 2040 three times as many Coloradans will be 65 or over and potentially not buying fishing or hunting licenses.

“The public will have to decide what’s important to them in terms of wildlife and parks management – more cuts and less opportunity, or find a way to increase operating revenue so that we can manage at the level expected by Coloradans.” said Northwest Regional Manager JT Romatzke. “I can say that this agency has had to undergo severe belt-tightening and there is little room for more without severely crimping it’s mission.

“We are at a crossroads and we need to find an effective solution quickly, or risk losing a critical part of Colorado’s heritage,” Romatzke said.



The battle over the future of a land of water and wilderness

BWCA fishing time

Lukas Leaf, far right, settles into his canoe as he and other anglers head out for an evening fishing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. Leaf is the outreach coordinator for Sportsmen for the Boundary waters, a group campaigning against a proposed copper/nickel mine near the BWCA border. Photo and story by Dave Buchanan

Tim Barton, a guide and outfitter for Piragis Northwoods Company in Ely, Minn., likely knows as well as anyone the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a 1.09-million-acre gem of public land in far-north Minnesota that stretches for 150 miles along the U.S./Canada border.

Barton, 31, has been journeying through the Boundary Waters since he was “6 or 7, I guess,” he said. ““By the time I was 13 I was guiding trips for my dad.”

This is a land that’s mostly water, where most of the estimated 1,100 lakes, spruce-dotted islands and rivers with white-water falls are accessible only by paddle or portage.

It’s also a land of contrasts. At night, an immense bowl of sky showers you with a king’s ransom of stars dancing across dark skies like a million candles to light your way, and in the day that expanse of sky cradles endless expanses of pristine water and an ever-changing vista of every imaginable shade of green, this month sprinkled with red, carmine and gold, the first changing of the leaves.

You hear the wind in the spruce, a loon’s distant whistle, the grunt of moose, maybe even the howl of a wolf.

Barton tried living in Colorado for a while but found irresistible the lure of the north woods.

“I couldn’t live anywhere else,” he said.

Last week, thanks to the efforts of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Barton and fellow guide (and forager par excellence) Lukas Leaf, outreach coordinator for Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters, herded four writers and photographers on a four-day trip into the bones of the BWCAW.

Thee, with a captive/receptive audience, Barton and Leaf preached the gospel of what the Boundary Waters means to the area’s estimated quarter-million annual visitors and the importance of saving this wilderness from the threat of a sulfide-ore copper/nickel mine proposed to be dug in the Boundary Waters watershed.

split supprt from MPR

Split emotions are evident during a recent hearing about an underground mine proposed near the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area. Courtesy Minnesota Public Radio.

Northern Minnesota is mining country, its past forged with a complex history and the millions of tons of iron ore dug from the ground and shipped to mills and foundries, many of them on the shores of Lake Superior less than 100 miles to the southeast. Many of those mines have closed, often due to competition from foreign ores and depressed national markets.

There still are many people in Ely and elsewhere who dream of the return of well-paying mining jobs.They are well-meaning and serious about what the mine could provide mean to the economic future of the area and their families.

But mining iron ore isn’t the same as mining copper ore with its sulfurous residue, Leaf said one night as the campfire burned low. One rusts, the other acidifies, and a spill into a river can quickly change a vibrant river into a lifeless stream.

And I’ve seen the destruction a failed acid-leach mine tailing pile can wreak on an environment. Colorado’s mining history (e.g., Leadville, Del Norte, Silverton) is replete with what happens when a tailing dam fails or acid drainage leaches into a nearby stream or river.

“Over time, the structural integrity and the general competency of all tunnels and underground mine workings will continue to deteriorate without regular maintenance,” states an Environmental Protection Agency handout written about the Leadville acid mining drainage.

Today, tourism, mostly the year-round lure of the Boundary Waters and adjacent Quetico Provincial Park in Canada, is the one of region’s leading economic drivers albeit less (by about a third) of mining’s economic impact.

In 2016, the federal government said it would not renew two key mineral leases which had expired in 2013, saying the proposed mine posed too great a threat to the Boundary Waters.

But that was before the Trump administration came to power. Now, Twin Metals Mining has renewed its fight to have the leases renewed, feeling the chances are better with the de-regulation attitude popular in Washington, D.C.

Currently, the leases are being reviewed. The public comment period closed last month.