Colorado Parks and Wildlife reduces big-game hunting licenses and shortens season dates |

Colorado Parks and Wildlife reduces big-game hunting licenses and shortens season dates

Reductions are the result of harsh winter in northwest corner of the state

The northwest corner of Colorado is known for having some of the largest elk herds in the nation. The harsh winter has forced Colorado Parks and Wildlife to reduce deer, elk and pronghorn hunting licenses in the region.
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A harsh winter, particularly in the northwest corner of Colorado, has caused Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) to make “unprecedented big-game hunting license reductions” and shorten some season dates, according to a May 23 press release. At the May Parks and Wildlife Commission meeting, CPW staff approved the following regulations after presenting the Deer, Elk, Pronghorn and Moose Limited License Recommendations and State of the Herds Update:

  • CPW is issuing 236,600 licenses for deer, elk, pronghorn, moose and bear. These license changes include a reduction of 32,000 (-12%) limited licenses from last year. 
  • Statewide, CPW is issuing 12,600 (-12%) fewer deer licenses than last year. For the northwest region, it’s a reduction of 12,800 (-33%) deer licenses.
  • Statewide, CPW is limiting 107,700 licenses for elk, down 15,400 (-12%) licenses from last year. 
  • Archery licenses for hunt code E-E-004-O1-A and muzzleloader licenses for hunt codes E-E-004-O1-M and E-E-014-O1-M have been reduced by an additional 25%. Only the number of licenses issued has changed. Dates for archery and muzzleloader season in these hunt codes remain the same.
  • The Commission shortened the season dates for over-the-counter elk licenses in the Severe Winter Zone for the second and third rifle seasons (hunt codes E-M-000-U2-R and E-M-000-U3-R). The season dates have been shortened to five days (Oct. 28, 2023 – Nov. 1, 2023, and Nov. 11, 2023 – Nov. 15, 2023) if hunting in GMUs 3, 4, 5, 11, 12, 13, 14, 23, 24, 131, 211, 214, 231, 301 and 441. Season dates will remain the same for all other eligible GMUs statewide. 
  • The Commission also finalized regulations modifying the big-game license allocation for black bear, deer, elk and pronghorn from 65% for residents and 35% for nonresidents to 75% for residents and 25% for nonresidents for most hunt codes for those species effective for the 2024 big-game seasons. High-demand hunt codes remain at 80% for residents and 20% for non-residents.

Big game manager Andy Holland divided his presentation at the commission meeting into two parts: first discussing the “Severe Winter Zone” — which includes specific game management units (GMUs) in the northwest corner of Colorado (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 211, 301, 441, 214, 201, 131, 231, 22, 23, 24) — before talking about the rest of the state.

According to the press release, the snow conditions experienced from Rangely to Steamboat Springs and the Wyoming state line were the most severe seen in 70 years. Heavy storms and strong winds buried elk, mule deer and pronghorn food sources under hard-packed snow.

“CPW staff hosted weekly meetings to evaluate snow conditions and observe how it was impacting the survival rates of GPS-collared animals in the area,” the release stated. It was based on these findings that the CPW recommended reductions in the aforementioned GMUs.

The Severe Winter Zone, where elk, pronghorn and deer populations suffered as a result of a historically harsh winter.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife/Courtesy photo

“This winter has been historic in many ways,” Darby Finley, Meeker area terrestrial biologist, stated in the release. “These recommendations were not easy to make, and we know they will impact more than just CPW, including hunting opportunities and local economies. However, we believe these substantial reductions in licenses will allow herds to recover as quickly as possible.”

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The “Severe Winter Zone” is notable for having some of the largest elk herds in the nation. The survival rates were the lowest CPW has ever documented and even below what CPW previously thought was possible.

“These reductions are designed to offset or account for the additional mortality from the severe winter,” Holland said.

“These are our largest and most productive herds in the state and these are the largest license reductions our agency has ever made, to my knowledge, in the history of wildlife management in Colorado. We’re making these drastic changes now so these herds can grow as quickly as possible to offset the mortality that happened this summer.”

The process for CPW’s annual license setting.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife/Courtesy photo

Mule deer fared somewhat better than elk and pronghorn in the region, but the high prevalence of chronic wasting disease has impacted the population’s resiliency, according to the release. CPW was prompted to reduce male and either-sex deer licenses as a result of those factors as well as the already decreased population seen over the last several years.

Pronghorn fared the worst during the winter, and wildlife-vehicle collisions increased as the animals found relief from deep snow along roadways.

Turning to the rest of the state, Holland noted the “Severe Winter Zone” as being a “specific, historically severe low-elevation winter snowpack situation.”

“For the rest of Colorado, outside the severe winter zone, it’s pretty much business as usual. We’re setting license recommendations to our herd-management objectives,” he said. “For the rest of the western slope, this winter was above average in severity, but our deer, elk, pronghorn and moose survival rates are either average or slightly below average. So it’s a totally different situation between the severe winter zone and the rest of the state.”

The impact on Eagle County is visible in recommendations for the northwest region, seen in the photos below. All limited deer licenses will be reduced by 33%, with elk and pronghorn reductions established at 23% and 49%, respectively. Moose licenses will increase statewide, 7% in the northwest, and bear licenses will decrease by 3% in the region.

The 2023 big game license recommendations for deer are seen above. The reductions, especially in the northwest region of the state, are the result of harsh winter conditions severely impacting the population.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife/Courtesy photo
The 2023 big game license recommendations for elk, pronghorn, moose and bear.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife/Courtesy photo

“This winter is a great example of why CPW sets license quota recommendations in late spring,” said Brad Banulis, northwest region senior terrestrial biologist. “By using the data and biological information we collect from late fall through early spring, we can evaluate conditions and make the best license recommendations to meet herd management objectives.”

During the public comment portion of the May commission meeting, Jennifer Burbey, president of Colorado Outfitters Association (COA) mentioned that many of COA’s members have reported they are voluntarily rescheduling or canceling their services and hunts in response to the winter kill.

“While we are in business to provide hunting services, supporting ourselves and our employees, at our core, we must conserve the very animals that feed us in perpetuity,” she said before requesting that a mandatory hunter survey be attached to every license issued in the northwest.

“The sheer amount of data gleaned from that survey will add to a precise and efficient recovery, while the current random survey will always leave room for guesstimate.”

While COA supports the proposed reductions, Burbey said she expects the loss of life to not end with the spring storm cycles.

“Another reasonable point that cannot be left unsaid,” she continued.

“The northern bubble of the Ditmer (et al., 2022) map is the only wolf release area currently available. The wolves released will have no idea that their preferred prey base is struggling. The release and additional pressure of yet another unknown predator to these prey could be the tipping point to not recovering.”

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