Wildlife officials want to hear from the community on the state of the continent’s largest elk herd

Tamara Miller
The Vail Daily

EAGLE COUNTY — There’s a pest ruining Bud Gates’ haystacks, tearing down his fences and eating his crops.

The lifelong cattle rancher lives in rural, northwestern Eagle County, and is a less-than-enthusiastic neighbor to the largest elk herd in North America. Elk, after all, don’t pay much attention to trespassing laws.

“It’s not so much what they eat, it’s what they destroy,” Gates said. “By the time they urinate all over the haystacks, the cattle won’t even eat it.”

State wildlife officials estimate just under 42,000 elk live in the northwest corner of Eagle County, near the communities of Sweetwater and Burns.

That’s nearly a 40 percent increase from 15 years ago, though wildlife officials point out they are better at counting the animals these days.

With those new numbers in tow, the wildlife commission is considering raising the number of elk hunting permits issued year-to-year.

Hunters, ranchers, wildlife enthusiasts and business owners are just some of the people who have a vested interest in the herd’s health and survival.

Comments from those groups that use and share the land with the elk will be key in deciding the herd’s fate, said Pat Tucker, area wildlife manager.

If it’s up to Gates, more hunting licenses will be issued in the future. Depending upon the time of year, 50 percent of that herd’s habitat is on private land.

Hunting keeps the herd in check, and it makes life for ranchers a bit easier, while ensuring that the herd still has the right mix of males-to-females for reproduction. Wildlife officials issue more licenses for female elk, known as cows, Gates said.

Jannis Putelis agreed. The avid hunter said the state needs to issue more cow hunting licenses to keep the herd population under control. Hunters too often just want to hunt male elk, or bulls, aiming for a trophy set of antlers, he said.

“We have way too much elk roadkill in Colorado,” Putelis said.
Hunting is big business throughout the area and the county, bringing in $10.18 million worth of business to Eagle County, according to wildlife officials.

The last three years have been good hunting seasons in that the population remaining after the season closes remains high, Tucker said.

Tucker said he didn’t know how many licenses were issued for the Sweetwater/Burns area, but said “there definitely hasn’t been an increase.”

Handing out more hunting licenses won’t do enough to thin the herd, said Rob Edward, with Sinapu, a group that advocates the restoration of carnivores, such as wolves, in Colorado.

Hunting as a sport is on the decline, he said. In the meantime, elk are increasing because their primary predator — wolves — have been absent from the state since 1945.

Bringing wolves back to Colorado would thin the herd, as well as force elk to change habitat more often. “Redistributing” the elk would stop them from overgrazing aspen and willow trees.

Such a change in the food chain would prompt positive changes in the landscape, such as providing better beaver habitat and more wetlands, Edward said.

It’s working in Yellowstone National Park, where wildlife officials are still studying the success of the wolf-reintroduction program there, Edward said.

“The people of Colorado have said in multiple public opinion polls that they believe wolves should be restored to Colorado,” he said. “So certainly there is widespread political support. The issue is of the political will to do so.”

The commission is expected to decide this fall how many elk licenses it will issue.

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