Can Vail-area elk herds ever recover? Wildlife managers talk decline

Much of the decline in area elk populations has come in the past 20 years or so.
Rick Spitzer | Special to the Daily |
By the numbers 3,500: Elk counted from Vail Pass to Wolcott in 2002 1,200: Animals spotted in the same area in 2016. 10: Cow elk rifle season hunting licenses issued in the Vail area in 2018. 100 percent: Increase in trail use around Vail since 2009.

VAIL — Hunting is meant to control elk herds. Less hunting is supposed to help herds grow. So far, that isn’t happening.

During a Wednesday evening wildlife forum in Vail, the area’s current and former wildlife managers talked about the decline in local elk herds, and what might be done about it.

Devin Duval is the Vail-area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. In a phone conversation the day after the forum, Duval said the elk population decline has come in an area essentially in the Eagle River and Roaring Fork River drainages.

Bill Andree, the recently-retired Colorado Parks and Wildlife manager for the Vail area, said that decline has been steep. In a phone conversation after the forum, Andree said it used to be that nearly 1,000 hunting licenses per year were issued for the game management units around Vail and the Eagle River Valley. That doesn’t mean that many animals were taken — “it wasn’t even 30 percent,” Andree said.

Cutting back on hunting licenses

As the herds declined, fewer hunting licenses were issued. For the 2018 season, only 10 licenses were issued for cow elk in the local management units for all rifle hunting seasons. Another 10 were issued for muzzle-loader seasons.

Hunters are also prohibited from holding multiple licenses.

Andree noted that no either-sex or cow licenses were issued for the late-summer archery season.

As of yet, those hunting license cutbacks haven’t had much effect on herd sizes. Less hunting of cow elk, in theory, should produce more calves.

“When you cut licenses, you ought to see an increase,” Andree said. “It’s not happening.”

Andree, who served nearly 40 years as the wildlife manager for the Vail area, said what might help herds recover is public policy.

“It’s a public decision,” Andree said. “If the public decides wildlife is a priority, elected officials will have to start making tough decisions and saying ‘no.’

“Decisions made by the U.S. Forest Service to cut visitation to Maroon Bells and Hanging Lake are examples of saying ‘no,'” Andree added.

Public education working

On the other hand, public education seems to be having some effect.

At the inaugural wildlife forum in Vail in 2018, video evidence was presented of more than 200 people in just 10 days violating a seasonal closure on Vail’s North Trail.

Vail Environmental Sustainability manager Kristen Bertuglia said a season of education has cut down on the number of closure violations this winter, with only 44 observed violations in just two months.

Following the 2018 forum, Bertuglia said she’s seen something of a culture shift.

“You can’t just blow off a trail closure,” she said.

Still, there’s been a dramatic increase in backcountry use in the past decade. Bertuglia noted that trail use in the Vail area has doubled since 2009. There’s 30 percent more overnight use in the same period.

“Those numbers are staggering, and there are real issues that come with that,” Bertuglia said.

Vail Town Council member Kim Langmaid said working to stabilize or reverse the decline in herds is something that requires action.

“We’re at a tipping point right now,” Langmaid said. “We need to act immediately.”

Langmaid said that action could include education and having “some restraint” in recreation and development.

“The people in this community can get a lot done if they put their minds to it,” Langmaid said. “Right now… wildlife really needs our help.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at or 970-748-2930. 

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