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.



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.

Green Mtn. Reservoir latest to reach the “suspect” list for invasive mussels.


The Heeney Marina on Green Mountain Reservoir near Silverthorne. Photo courtesy Heeney Marina.

The battle continues. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has listed Green Mountain Reservoir north of Silverthorne as “suspect” for invasive aquatic mussels.

Read the press release here and the Denver Post article here.

Winter’s unlikely weather may be new norm for water forecasters

Neversink 2017

Neversink was a popular fishing resort on the Gunnison River below Gunnison before Blue Mesa Dam backed up the river to nine miles west of Gunnison. Photo and story by Dave Buchanan.

This past spring year was particularly mettlesome for water managers seeking to balance water supplies and demand in the Upper Gunnison River Basin.

Although there currently are no shortages of water this year, the vagaries of last winter, from unseasonably warm to unseasonably cold, may hold some warning about future water forecasting for regional hydrologists, cautioned Greg Smith, Senior Hydrologist for NOAA’s Colorado River Basin Forecasting Center in Salt Lake.

The art of forecasting water supplies has as one of its main tools historical data and the rapidity of changes in the Earth’s climate recently has been handcuffing the best efforts of forecasters, said Smith during the last week’s Aspinall Unit Operations meeting in Grand Junction.

The quarterly meetings, sponsored by the Western Colorado Area Office of the Bureau of Reclamation, offer a look at what hydrologists and weather forecasters portend for future water supplies in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

“2017 was challenging,” Smith said when addressing the year’s weather. “When we go from one (weather) extreme to the other, as we have seen this year, that makes our job even more difficult.”

summer snotel

The Beartown SNOTEL site in Mineral County gets some summer maintenance from Zach Wilson. This winter, similar remote-sensing sites were buried by snow. Photo by Mike Ardison.

A pair of linked examples was the unusual warming in March, which caused some very early low-elevation melting and ensuing runoff, followed by an unseasonably cold May (“February-like temperatures,” Smith said) which drastically slowed that runoff and caused concern among water managers wondering when and if the runoff would begin anew.

All this was tied to the near-record snows of late December and January, which overwhelmed some of the region’s remote-sensing SNOTEL sites.

“Several sites quit reporting and we thought they had broken but in reality they had been completely buried by the snow,” Smith said. “In March, a lot of the sites (in the Upper Gunnison Basin) recorded their highest totals on record … some of which go back 39 years.”

Are the aberrant weather patterns of last winter just that or are they indications of a new normal that eventually will become part of the historical data?

Smith isn’t sure.

“Well, we try to use long-term records in making our (water-supply) forecasts, at least 20 years or more,” Smith said. “So even these recent weather patterns will take a while to become part of the permanent record.

“And we’re certainly aware of weather changes. Even a few degrees one way or the other affects snowmelt and eventually water supplies.”

Water managers face unusual dilemma: Too much water

Blue Mesa full 2017

A summer storm over Blue Mesa Reservoir west of Gunnison. At this writing, the reservoir was more than 98 percent full. Story and photo by Dave Buchanan.

“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. It’s better to be rich.” – Gertrude Stein, American novelist.

Farmers, ranchers and domestic water managers all agree with Ms. Stein when it comes to matters of water. Rich is much better than poor.

And water-rich is what the Upper Gunnison Basin finds itself this year.

So much so, the Bureau of Reclamation faces some timing decisions later this summer and fall in emptying swollen reservoirs along the Gunnison River.

“It’s going to take a lot of work” to reach the winter operating level at Blue Mesa Reservoir, said Erik Knight, lead hydrologist for the Bureau’s Western Colorado Area Office in Grand Junction.

Speaking at Thursday’s quarterly Aspinall Unit Operations meeting, Knight said the reservoir, which Saturday was 98.5 percent full with 817,000 acre feet of water, needs to reach 7,490 elevation by the end of December to avoid icing problems upstream.

The current elevation is 7,518 feet elevation.

“We’re going to be running a lot of water (through Blue Mesa) to meet the Dec. 31 deadline,” Knight said. “But right now our lower reservoirs also are full and Crystal (Dam) is at full power plant release.”

The reason anglers, recreationists and Chamber of Commerce folks have a bank-to-bank Blue Mesa is the result of the late-season storms that blanketed the Upper Gunnison Basin and a cooler-than-normal spring that delayed the runoff.

At last count, inflows into Blue Mesa this year are around 136 percent of normal, and recent rains have continued the inflows.

Also brimming are Crystal Reservoir (88 percent) and Morrow Point Reservoir (98 percent).

Knight said releases out of Crystal are around 1,900 cfs, which is the most possible without spilling the reservoir.

“We have no plans to spill Crystal,” he said.

One beneficiary of all that water is Lake Powell, which currently is 67 feet down or 62 percent full. That level is 17 feet higher than the same time last year but don’t expect Powell to fill much more this year.

Most of the water released by Upper Basin states will be passing through to Lake Mead and then downstream to the Lower Basin and Mexico.

Around 9 million acre-feet of water is expected to be released this summer, more than the 8.25-million acre feet required by the Colorado River Compact and enough to delay concerns about water shortages in Lake Mead.