Parks and Wildlife officials: Eagle Valley elk population sees significant declines | SteamboatToday.com

Parks and Wildlife officials: Eagle Valley elk population sees significant declines

Vail Daily

EAGLE COUNTY — The elk population in Eagle Valley — from Vail Pass to Glenwood Canyon — is down nearly 40 percent from what it was in 2002. This precipitous drop has personnel from Colorado Parks and Wildlife concerned.

“I don’t think people realize the dramatic amount the elk population has decreased,” said Craig Wescoatt, Parks and Wildlife manager. “We are not seeing the animals migrate to another area or permanently move somewhere else. They are just dead and gone.”

Elk counts are done from helicopters in the winter, said Bill Andree, a Parks and Wildlife manager stationed in the area. That aerial count number is combined with harvest data and winter condition information to estimate population. In 2002, an estimated 10,600 elk resided in the valley. By 2016, the number had dropped to an estimated 6,554 elk.

The trend of elk calf production is also down.

Parks and Wildlife data previously showed about 50 calves per 100 cows. Those figures are now in the low 30s. Andree said at about 34 to 35 calves per 100 cows, its possible to maintain a herd. But with the herd’s population already significantly reduced, maintenance isn’t the goal, he said.

What happened?

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“There is no one, individual reason for this population decline,” Andree said.

Eagle County has seen drier conditions, including drought in 2012, but a single drought year isn’t enough to wipe out nearly half of the region’s elk population. Likewise, the region has seen an increase in predators, including mountain lions, but that is a contributing factor at most.

The biggest issue affecting the local elk population is disruption. Andree said it is becoming increasingly difficult for animals to find respite from humans.

“People are out there all the time any more,” he said. “There are people snowshoeing by moonlight and training for ultramarathons. There is no time period when the animals don’t have to compete with humans for habitat.”

Mitigation efforts

Parks and Wildlife is responding with the one tool at its disposal: The agency is reducing the number of antlerless elk hunting licenses. Before 2007, there would be 2,000 or more cow elk permits available for the fall hunting license draw. This year, there will be fewer than 200.

Parks and Wildlife also is working on education, and various mitigation programs have been launched to address development impacts. Both Andree and Wescoatt noted that more than $1 million has been spent on wildlife mitigation projects around Eagle, but those improvements have not stabilized the elk population.

The town of Eagle has instituted seasonal closures on its popular open space trails, but people don’t always comply with the rules.

There is only so much land in Eagle County, Andree said, and at some point people will have to determine if they value wildlife enough to make sure there is room for elk and deer herds in the valley.

“How many miles of trails and development is enough?” Andree asked. “Sooner or later, you are going to have to say ‘no more.'”

Read the full story at VailDaily.com.

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