East Vail bighorn herd may lose three rams in fall hunt
Wildlife officials say licenses are aimed at taking older rams out of the herd
- There are rumors swirling around Vail that someone has placed salt licks in the East Vail bighorn herd’s winter range. According to Vail Environmental Sustainability Director Kristen Bertuglia, there are no confirmed reports of salt licks being placed in the area.
VAIL — Colorado Parks and Wildlife is making three hunting licenses available for mature rams in the bighorn sheep herd that winters in East Vail.
Those licenses are available via lottery and are intended to address an imbalance in the herd.
According to an email from area wildlife officer Devin Duval, current counts show “approximately 17 mature rams” in the herd, many of them older.
“Biologically, with where the herd’s ram-to-ewe ratio is, it can support one additional ram harvest,” Duval wrote, adding that many of the older rams are likely to die before “there ever is a threat of hunter harvest.”
Opposition on council
While wildlife officials have explained the rationale for issuing hunting licenses for the herd, Vail Town Council Member Jenn Bruno isn’t happy with the idea.
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Bruno said the Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials and other experts held that “every life in that herd was essential and important” during meetings about the proposed Booth Heights workforce housing project.
Bruno said wildlife officials didn’t talk about the need to take rams from the herd at any of those meetings.
Noting the town’s efforts to enhance habitat for the herd, Bruno said the town is willing to spend thousands per sheep. Meanwhile, licenses for the fall hunt are $350 each.
Focus on ratios
Duval wrote that Colorado Parks and Wildlife manages bighorn with an eye toward specific sex ratios as a way to decrease the potential for disease transmission.
“Breeding-age rams tend to be more pioneering in nature and can serve as a vector for disease if they venture off and then return to the herd,” Duval wrote.
Responding to a question about how hunters can spot older animals, Duval wrote that hunters tend to want the biggest ram possible. Those are the oldest.
There’s also a minimum requirement for the amount of “curl” in a ram’s horn. The rule also covers the minimum size for the curl. It’s possible to count a ram’s age by the rings on those curls.
Wildlife officials last year issued two ram licenses for the herd. One hunter was successful.
Duval also wrote that while wildlife officials are working to trim the ram population, “we are still actively protecting the lamb-bearing portion of the herd.”
Rams and ewes generally wander in different areas. Ewes tend to use the hillside nearer the Interstate 70 interchange at East Vail, while rams tend to winter closer to the town’s public works facility to the west of the ewes’ winter range.
Rams can breed with several ewes in a season, he wrote, adding that “one additional ram (license) will have minimal effect on the overall herd health. Disease and habitat loss continue to be the biggest threat to this sheep herd.”
‘Timing is unfortunate’
Council Member Brian Stockmar lives in East Vail and was one of the most vocal opponents of Booth Heights, in large part due to claims that the housing project could harm the herd.
Stockmar said that wildlife officials’ argument for trimming the herd sounds rational to him.
“I rely on people like (wildlife experts) to tell me what works,” Stockmar said. “I don’t substitute my judgment for theirs.”
Vail resident Jonathan Staufer was a vocal opponent of Booth Heights, again, largely due to potential impacts on the sheep herd.
In an email, Staufer wrote, “I think given (wildlife officials’) excellent advocacy on behalf of the local herd … their timing is unfortunate.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-748-2930.