Colorado’s rifle hunting season begins Saturday, but there’s a lot less orange in Eagle County
Drop in elk and deer populations has reduced the number of hunting licenses
EAGLE — Come fall, communities in the lower Eagle Valley just don’t look like they used to.
There’s decidedly less orange visible, and we aren’t talking about fall foliage. For decades, big game hunters painted downtown Eagle orange during the combined deer and elk rifle seasons each autumn. That’s not to say that sportsmen have abandoned hunting in the area, but they don’t make up the ubiquitous presence of years past.
“When the first rifle season opened, it use to be the whole town was orange,” said Eddie Oyler, the owner of the local Sinclair gas station.
For 35 years, Oyler has had a prime vantage point — his business is located at the intersection of Eby Creek Road and Chambers Avenue — to watch events unfold in Eagle.
“At the gas station here, we had to gear up for the hunting season. There was just a sea of hunters in town,” said Oyler. “There is just a tremendous difference in hunting numbers.”
Although there aren’t as many of them as there used to be, rifle hunters will be making their way to the valley this weekend. The four 2019 Colorado combined rifle seasons are scheduled Oct. 12-16, Oct. 19-27, Nov. 2-10 and Nov. 13-17.
According to the state of Colorado, the economic impact of hunting statewide was $843 million 2017. In the northwest region, which includes Eagle County, the impact was $136 million. Obviously, those are large numbers, but the state’s hunting landscape is very different than what it was 30 years ago.
“There has been a change, but the change has been due to a lot of factors,” said Craig Wescoatt, a wildlife manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, who is based in Eagle. “It seems like not only have hunting trends changed but also technology has changed.”
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Wescoatt said the norm was for hunters to camp in dispersed areas and venture out in the woods from their campsites. That meant hitting local businesses before setting up camp and then hunkering down in the woods for several days. He noted many of today’s hunters stay in hotels or at larger campsites and head out to the woods on ATVs or UTVs.
But the biggest change in the local hunting landscape is the documented decline in elk and deer numbers in Eagle County. As the animal populations drop, Colorado Parks and Wildlife adjusts the number of hunting licenses available in an effort to stabilize herd population.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, hunters in Eagle County could purchase buck and bull licenses over the counter and doe and cow tags were widely available. That’s not the case today for nearby game units. All nearby game unit mule deer licenses are now limited and cow elk licenses are more difficult to draw. Some areas — Game Management Unit 44 located south of Eagle, for example — have tight restrictions. Since 1995, GMU 44 has been a trophy unit for deer with a very limited number of licenses available.
But the story at GMU 44 is an extreme example, noted CPW terrestrial biologist Julie Mao. She noted that the deer herd located north of Interstate 70 in Eagle County is a better representation of the local mule deer population.
“That herd’s numbers have stabilized since the hard winter of 2008-09 and as it has come back, we have increased the number of licenses,” she said.
But while the herd’s numbers have stabilized from a low point, it is still much smaller than the peak years.
“It’s not to the level of the 1980s and 1990s, but it’s close to where it was in the 2000s,” Mao said.
Colorado is one of only five states where hunters can purchase over-the-counter bull elk licenses. CPW used to issue a large number of cow licenses in Eagle County as well. Not any longer.
“It’s a lot more difficult to get a cow elk tag than it used to be,” Wescoatt said. “The elk population is sliding downward, and we are trying to get a grasp on that. That’s one of the reasons why the licenses are being conservatively meted out.”
According to CPW’s 2013 comprehensive analysis of Elk Herd E-16 — which encompasses GMUs 44, 45, 47 and 444 — the number of sportsmen who reported hunting in the area has dropped significantly since the mid-1990s. The report states the number has leveled off to approximately 2,000 hunters annually.
Compare that number to the historic harvest numbers detailed later in the report.
“The highest total annual harvest (2,190 elk) occurred in 2002, which was also the year that had the highest cow harvest (1,344 cows). The highest bull harvest was 1,022, which occurred in 1996,” the 2013 CPW report states.
Not just about the animals
While the decline in the local big game animal populations, and the subsequent decline in license availability, is the largest factor in the drop in local hunting numbers, it isn’t the only factor in play.
“Times have changed and attitudes have changed. That’s just the way it is,” Wescoatt said.
“When I was a young man, we grew up hunting with our fathers. It was a part of life,” Oyler said. “Nowadays, kids grow up playing video games.”
While the animal numbers are lower, Oyler believes there are still a lot of local hunting opportunities.
“I think there is a fair amount of game out there. There were deer and elk down along the Brush Creek Valley all summer.”
Oyler added that the local community isn’t the only place where hunting numbers are waning.
“I hardly saw another hunter on Grand Mesa when I was there last year for the first season,” he said.
Back on the streets of Eagle and Gypsum, there are some businesses that have strung up “Welcome Hunters” banners, but that’s about the only harbinger of the arrival of rifle season.
“The businesses in town used to cater to the hunters. Hunting season used to be a front-page topic,” Wescoatt said. “It is interesting, if you have been here long enough, to see how things have changed.”
Shopping at the Thrifty Shop is partly pure commerce, partly treasure hunt and partly philanthropic endeavor.