Where has all the wildlife gone: CPW officials cite 50 percent drop in Eagle Valley’s elk population

This elk, spotted near Red Cliff, is stuck in the snow and weakened from winter. Harsh conditions, as well as human interference with the animals' habitat, have caused big declines in herd numbers near Minturn.
Daily file photo

EAGLE COUNTY — Imagine if, over a 10-year period, half of Eagle County’s human population disappeared.

We would be using the terms “drastic,” “alarming” and maybe even “catastrophic” to describe the situation.

During the past decade, that exact scenario has played out for one group of county residents. Today’s elk population in the area — from Vail Pass to Glenwood Canyon — is 50 percent lower than it was in 2007. This precipitous drop has personnel from Colorado Parks and Wildlife concerned.

“I don’t think people realize the dramatic amount the elk population has decreased,” said Craig Wescoatt, wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

“The numbers we have counted have dropped some 50 (percent) to 60 percent in the last 10 years,” Wescoatt said. “We are not seeing the animals migrate to another area or permanently move somewhere else. They are just dead and gone.”

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Bill Andree is also a CPW wildlife manager stationed in the area. He noted elk counts are done from helicopters in the winter, and during the census, managers record age and sex information about the animals. Based on the same number of flight hours with the same personnel doing the counting, the Vail Pass to Aspen count, south of Interstate 70, recorded 3,500 elk in 2006. In 2016, only 1,400 elk were sighted in the same area.

Andree continued, noting that the aerial count numbers, combined with harvest data and winter condition information, is used to run a computer model that provides a population estimate. In 2002, an estimated 10,600 elk resided in the valley. By 2016, the number had dropped to an estimated 6,554 elk.

What’s more, looking at the trend of elk calf production, the news is grim.

Previously, CPW’s data showed numbers of roughly 50 calves per 100 cows. Those figures are now in the low 30s. CPW wildlife manager Bill Andree noted that at about 34 to 35 calves per 100 cows, its possible to maintain a herd. But with a herd that has already dropped by half, maintenance isn’t the goal.

“The chance of numbers returning to the population of 2007 is pretty difficult,” Andree said.

What Happened?

“There is no one, individual reason for this population decline,” Andree continued.

Eagle County hasn’t experienced a cataclysmic fire or a calamitous flood, for example. The area has seen drier conditions including drought in 2012, but a single drought year isn’t a big enough event to wipe out half of the region’s elk population. Likewise, the region has seen an increase in predatory issues with more mountain lions and bears moving to the area. But at most, the presence of more predators is a contributing factor to the elk population decline.

The biggest issue affecting the local elk population is disruption.

“It’s not only that there are more people and more houses. There are more areas being used by people,” Wescoatt said.

Recreationalists rejoice when they gain access to former ranch land, both for the opportunities the property itself offers and also for its gateway potential to federal lands. But what’s great for people isn’t great for wildlife.

Andree noted it is becoming increasingly difficult for animals to find respite from humans.

“People are out there all the time any more,” he said. “There are people snowshoeing by moonlight and training for ultramarathons There is no time period when the animals don’t have to compete with humans for habitat.”

Wescoatt noted that communities throughout Eagle County promote ecotourism in an attempt to maximize local sales tax collections by marketing the natural environment.

“All that is well and good, but there is an impact that comes from that, as well,” he said. “When it comes to wildlife, what does the public want to see happen?”

Management issue

Because the local elk loss is a significant issue, the CPW is responding with the one tool at its disposal. The agency is reducing the number of antlerless elk hunting licenses available. Before 2007, there would be 2,000 or more cow elk permits available for the fall hunting license draw. This year, there will be fewer than 200 allocated.

The other tool CPW has is education. That means both letting people know about the problem and urging them to change behaviors that are a detriment to wildlife. It also means advocating for deer and elk when development plans are discussed.

“We all know what happens when you build your house somewhere. You want to recreate out your back door,” Andree said. As a result of that thinking, houses and trails have sprouted south of I-70 and elk have disappeared.

“We are just starting to see those impacts on the north side of I-70, too,” Wescoatt said.

Because local communities do value wildlife, various mitigation programs have been launched to address development impacts. At Eagle Ranch, for example, money collected from a real estate transfer tax is earmarked for wildlife mitigation. Both Andree and Wescoatt noted that more than $1 million has been spent on wildlife mitigation projects around Eagle, but those improvements have not stabilized the elk population loss. The town of Eagle has instituted seasonal closures on its popular open space trails, but people don’t always comply with the rules.

And when it comes to owning up to the harm their actions are causing, recreationalists are likely to blame other groups for the problem.


Wescoatt and Andree said ignorance likely plays a big role in animal disturbance. People tend to think that harassing wildlife means chasing after them on ATVs or allowing a dog to run headlong into a herd. Yes, those are egregious examples, but they aren’t the only ones.

“Just because you think you didn’t bother wildlife doesn’t mean you didn’t,” Andree said. “Not every animal runs away when approached.”

Seasonal closures are instituted to protect pregnant cows at a time when their survival is tenuous. By late winter, food supplies are scare and cows need all the calories they can to birth a healthy calf and then produce the milk to feed it. If a cow is stressed out by nearby snowshoers, cross-country skiers or early-season mountain bikers, then that interaction will take a toll on both the cow and calf’s mortality chances.

Some local organizations are stepping up to help educate the public about the reasoning for seasonal closures and to police trailheads, Wescoatt and Andree noted. That’s a start.

In the bigger picture, if elk are going to survive in Eagle County, there needs to be land set aside for wildlife that is off limits to humans.

“Solitude and space are necessities for wildlife herds,” Wescoatt said.

That’s not an easy sell in a valley where recreation rules.

But as Andree noted, there is a carrying capacity for various environments. There is only so much water available in the Colorado River, for example, and people know they can’t plan for more use than what’s flowing in the riverbed. There is only so much land in Eagle County, and at some point people will have to determine if they value wildlife enough to make sure there is room for elk and deer herds in this valley.

“How many miles of trails and development is enough? Sooner or later, you are going to have to say ‘no more,’” Andree said.

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