EAGLE — The waning crescent of the hunter’s moon will shine tonight as the sky serves up a metaphor for activity in the valley.
As the preponderance of blaze orange attests, we are midway through Colorado’s big game hunting season. That means mud-splattered SUVs bearing out-of-state license plates and camouflage clad shoppers are a familiar sight around Eagle and Gypsum.
This week marks a break in the hunting schedule. The first two open seasons are now complete and the third season will begin Saturday and continue through Nov. 10. The final season of the year begins Nov. 13 and continues through Nov. 17.
Big game hunting is big business in Colorado, and it’s been an important Eagle County economic driver for decades. Back in 1953, the Eagle Valley Enterprise reported that some 200 hunters lined up outside of the Eagle County Courthouse in an attempt to nab one of the 100 elk hunting licenses available that year. Looking through old copies of the newspaper, fall hunting stories abound.
But in the here and now, how is the 2013 season stacking up? Like most things in life, that depends on who answers the question.
Average or above
“I am hearing that the elk hunting was very good during the second season,” said Craig Wescoatt, wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Wescoatt has worked as a game warden in the Eagle area for more than 20 years, and he said there is really no way to truly judge the big game season until it is completed. However, his gut is saying the number of hunters in the valley seems to be about average or above average this year. He noted the economy probably has a lot to do with that because better financial conditions nationwide mean more hunters can afford to make a trip to Eagle County.
Bill Andree, also a wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife, agreed there seems to be more hunters around town this year, but that may be because of a number of road closures upvalley. He pointed to closures in the Berry Creek, Red and White Mountain and Camp Hale areas, noting that overall the county’s numbers may prove generally unchanged because hunters had to move to different areas.
Andree said he had an interesting conversation with an employee at 1stBank a couple of days ago.
“One of the bank employees told me he had never really realized how many hunters came through this town,” Andree said. “But because of where he worked, he saw vehicle after vehicle drive by to City Market or into the gas station across the street.”
“And I keep hearing from people that City Market is a sea of camo and orange,” Andree said.
As far as the animal harvest, Wescoatt and Andree believe it is down overall because of the warm weather conditions.
“The animals are difficult to find and they are not moving around so much,” Wescoatt said.
He noted elk are staying at treeline and on north-facing slopes because of the warm weather. As for deer, Wescoatt said the animals appear to be scattered around the county.
“You have to put in some extra effort to find the animals,” Andree said. “You may have to go a mile or two higher, but if you do that, then you have a good chance to find them.”
Eric Whirley, owner of Action Taxidermy and Game Processing in Gypsum, doesn’t share the game wardens’ views.
“For our shop, it’s been a banner year,” he said.
Whirley notes he has been in business for nine years, and he’s been so busy this year that he has brought on three employees, bringing his total number of workers to five. “Numbers are up big time for us, and we have seen some nice trophies come in,” he said. “Overall, the quality of the animals is good this year.
“But there are still spots in the refrigerator and so people can bring their animals on in,” Whirley added.
As for anecdotal evidence, Wescoatt noted that the biggest hunting stories he’s heard this year came from a couple of hunters who shot large bears.
Andree and Wescoatt agreed that the 2013 season has brought some welcome and good news.
“Overall, people have been behaving themselves,” Wescoatt said.
“I haven’t had any big violations in this area at all,” Andree said. “No one has shot a moose by accident or reported a moose shot.”
Eagle area hunters had an extra challenge last weekend when the Colorado High School Cycling League State Championship arrived in town. There were warning signs at various hunting area access points, letting hunters know about the event and advising them to take extra care. As it turned out, the great weather last weekend proved to be the No. 1 deterrent.
“The elk just didn’t come down into that field by the race, so the hunter/racer conflicts just didn’t happen,” Wescoatt said.
With snow slated to hit the area during the next few days, hunters waiting for the third or fourth seasons may have an easier time finding animals. But Wescoatt noted it does take a significant amount of snowfall for elk and deer to decide it’s time to move down the hillside. However, when there is snow on the ground, it is obviously easier to track animals for hunters who are still waiting to hit the woods.
As for the question about how the season is shaping up, the people most affected by it agreed that it’s hard to make a judgment at halftime.
“Until you get to the bottom line at the end, you just don’t know how you did,” said Annie Colby, owner of The Nearly Everything Store, a popular hunter shopping spot in Eagle. “We have had some good days, but you really can’t compare it yet.”