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RBC I It is beginning to sound like a broken record—but that is a good thing for the stewards of our wildlife and for area hunters.
All of the big game that can be found in Rio Blanco County—with few exceptions—had a fourth-straight winter where conditions were nearly ideal. That means plenty of precipitation, temperatures that did not include intense frigid periods of long length and plenty of forage.
The moose, elk and bears emerged from the intense winter of 2015-16 in “excellent shape and quite happy,” said Bill deVergie, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife area wildlife manager for the Meeker field office. “All three of those animals are tough and resilient, but, of course, the bears spent a lot of their time hibernating.
“We had snow nearly every day or every other day from November through March, then we have had some good rains as we got into the spring, so conditions have really been ideal for those three species,” he said.
The news isn’t quite as good for the deer and antelope, he said, because of the amount of snow that fell throughout Northwest Colorado.
“These animals just aren’t as big and sturdy as the moose and elk, and they couldn’t quite get down to where the forage was under the snow,” he said.
“We have noted an increase of 10 to 15 percent in still-born deer and fawns that just didn’t survive,” he said. “That’s pretty much attributable completely to the heavy snows we had.
“The good news is that it wasn’t really a significant increase in losses and should only have a negligible effect,” he said. “We have had two to three really very good years prior to this winter, so there has been an increase in the number of animals, and the slight up/down cycles are what we actually hope for.”
He said the fluctuation is good so that, for instance, if there was a good increase every year without a check, like this past winter, the numbers can grow too fast and it isn’t long until there is another kind of problem.
“Sure, we will see a small decrease in the first year as there are fewer ‘recruits’ coming up,” he said. “But that should even out over a couple of years.”
Conditions, he said, are still ideal in Rio Blanco County with lots of forage, the ground still being wet and the smaller animals are mostly able to take care of themselves.
“The precipitation we had was just incredible this past winter, then the rain we had two weeks ago soaked everything that had started to dry out,” he said. “If we get some more rain in the next few weeks (as the seasonal monsoons are expected to kick up) then we will be in great shape again headed into the fall.”
He said that overall he felt it was a good calving and fawning season for the animals and that the numbers are going to look good headed into the fall.
“The elk are doing just fine,” he said. “We haven’t yet gotten to do the normal amount of checking we do on the elk each spring and summer, but the reports we have gotten and the number of elk we have seen indicate that they are doing well.
“They came down out of the high altitude this winter because of the heavy snow and they even came down enough to get onto the critical winter range around Maybell and north of Highway 64,” he said. “I don’t think we have seen any higher calf survival than in normal years, but they are looking good and are back to normal, on the top of the Flat Tops and spread out throughout the entire area. They have been seen high and low recently and the forage is in peak condition. It is all shaping up as a good hunting season and there are plenty of calves for next year.”
DeVergie said there has also been a loss of between 10 and 15 percent in the adult deer survival rate, “just due to the tough winter.”
“The snow was very deep between Meeker and Rangely and up to Maybell,” he said. “In fact, it was noticeably snowier almost everywhere west of Highway 13 to Craig.
“As far as the overall deer picture, I see a possible total decrease of 15 to 20 percent this year, which will make for small decreases over the next few years with a small drop in the number of ‘recruits,’ and when you have a loss of the young ones, it will be there for the next year or two.”
But, he said., that is all a part of wildlife management and is expected over the long term.
“It has not been a critical loss that will be felt in the long term, and I would still say we have a good number of deer and fawns,” he said.
deVergie said the few antelope herds in the area wintered “well, but those antelope are extremely resilient.”
Where the deer tend to lose fawns through still-born births, antelope have a tendency to abort, he said, adding that the evidence isn’t as early to find and that the CPW doesn’t spend the time monitoring the antelope to the extent of the deer, elk and moose.
“The moose are doing really well,” deVergie said. “They are so spread out and isolated that they don’t really herd up, which would make them easier to survey. They are hardy and did well, and we have had reports and seen the cows with calves already this summer.
“The population in the area is continuing to grow and they are concentrating in the Flat Tops east of Meeker, the lower mountain areas east of Meeker and have been seen as low as Miller Creek,” he said. “Most of the elks have moved up higher, but there are still some moose to be found only about 10 miles up, around Miller Creek now,” he said.
As for bears, the news is all good—for the bears.
“We have got to lower the population of bears and that is why we have been printing as many bear licenses as possible,” deVergie said. “Over the past three years we have seen the largest bear harvests in history and we are still pushing to get rid of more.
“I would estimate that 10 to 15 percent of deer/elk/moose hunters purchase a bear tag, but we are still desperate to harvest more,” he said. “When we lost the spring bear hunt in 1990 or ‘91, we kind of let the the bears get out of control. They thrived without the spring hunting season and numbers have been growing ever since. We are just in the last five to 10 years really putting the emphasis on harvesting bears—and they are abundant all over the five CPW districts in Northwest Colorado.”
Regarding sheep, we have small groups along the south branch of the White River, but they are reportedly not doing well.
“They have not done real well for the past couple of years,” deVergie said. “They are so isolated and tough to track that it isn’t really known for sure what the problem is, but there haven’t been any lambs seen, and if there are no lambs, then is no growth.
“They tend to stay in at least small groups; sometimes large,” deVergie said. “They are tough to find in that rugged terrain, so I don’t know how well they have been tested. My guess is that there is some kind of disease involved but it is just tough to confirm.”