Wildlife officials propose drastic reduction in Brush Creek deer herd population goal | VailDaily.com

Wildlife officials propose drastic reduction in Brush Creek deer herd population goal

This graph from Colorado Parks and Wildlife shows deer population numbers in Game Management Unit 44 -- the Brush Creek Valley. The red line at the top of the graph is the existing population objective for the area, 7,000 animals. CPW has proposed cutting that objective back to more accurately reflect the number of deer in the area.

EAGLE — Since 1995, Colorado Parks and Wildlife's population estimate for the Brush Creek Valley deer herd has been set at 7,000 animals.

But the actual deer population in that area has hovered around 2,200.

Now, as the agency launches its updated management plan for the area — also known as Game Management Unit 44 — it is proposing a new population objective that more accurately reflects the number of deer in the valley, saying it is "the only reasonably achievable objective under current habitat and land-use conditions."

On its surface, that action might look a bit defeatist. But in practice, wildlife officials believe its is an important revision that can steer sound wildlife-management practices for the next decade.

Herd-management plans are typically updated every 10 years, and they set the population objective and sex ratio objective of the herd for the next decade. The 7,000 figure for the GMU 44 was set 23 years ago, but wildlife officials noted that even after a decade of extremely conservative hunting license practices, they haven't seen a population increase in the area.

"Under the proposed population objective, license numbers would either remain similar to current quotas or could be increased if weather and other environmental/habitat conditions are favorable for population growth and increased sustainable harvest," notes a Colorado Parks and Wildlife report on the management plan. "Because current quotas are already very low, further decreases in license quotas would have no effect on the population size."

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Decades long wait

For hunters, the new population and sex ratio objectives aren't likely to increase access to deer tags in GMU 44. Because the area has been managed as a quality buck unit, licenses have been difficult to draw for the past 10 years. Because of those tight buck licenses quotas, the area has maintained a population of older-aged, bigger bucks. Those factors have resulted in GMU 44 becoming a once-in-a-lifetime type hunting area.

The numbers illustrate that description. As of 2018, Colorado residents needed to wait at least 13 years for a third season buck tag and at least 17 years for fourth season tags. Nonresidents must wait even longer. There are many hunters who realistically might never draw a license if the current quotas and draw system persist.

"We ask the hunting public what they want, and they say more deer and more bucks, but sometimes those objectives can't happen at the same time," said Colorado Parks and Wildlife wildlife biologist Julie Mao during a Tuesday, Sept. 25, meeting with the Eagle County commissioners.

Competing objectives

Increasing the population of the Brush Creek Valley deer herd is another example of competing interests, Mao said.

Along with the population objective, Colorado Parks and Wildlife is looking at a new sex ratio goal. Unlike the previous objective, the new plan calls for ranges. The proposed deer population range for GMU 44 is 1,500 to 3,500. The previous sex ratio was 35 bucks to 100 does, and the most current count averaged at 47 bucks per 100 does. The proposed sex ratio ranges are 30 to 40 bucks per 100 does, 35 to 45 bucks per 100 does and 40 to 50 bucks per 100 does.

But the ratio figure can conflict with overall population goals. While it would seem that more bucks means a larger population, extensive research has shown that herds with a higher concentration of bucks have lower fawn numbers. That means a lower overall population figure.

"The current fawn ratio is only sufficient to maintain the population, but is not high enough to yield population growth," notes the Colorado Parks and Wildlife report. "Another consideration is that in other deer herds that have chronic wasting disease (CWD), bucks are twice as likely as does to be CWD-positive."

The report notes that chronic wasting disease has not been detected in GMU 44 to date, but "if and when (chronic wasting disease) appears in this herd, managing for a high buck ratio could inadvertently facilitate the spread and prevalence of the disease."

As he prepares to gather public comment about the deer management plans for GMU 44, Area Wildlife Manager Perry Will stressed the focus of the work is on wildlife, not the Colorado Parks and Wildlife agency.

"It is about the resource, not about our funding mechanism," Will said. "We make the decisions for the health of the herd, not for the health of agency."

His budget figures bear out that assertion. Will said hunting license reductions in the area he oversees have totaled about $280,000 for 2018. But he is less worried about how to make his budget work than he is about the declining wildlife numbers in his management area.

"It is actually alarming," Will said.

Even as numbers dwindle, the county commissioners noted that residents place a high value on having a robust wildlife presence in the area. Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry noted that while polling for the upcoming open space ballot question, residents cited wildlife as a top value.

While locals say they value wildlife, human disturbances are the very factors driving down population numbers. Those factors include more recreational encroachment in wildlife areas, wildlife being displaced from preferred habitat, land development, significant loss of winter range and habitat fragmentation.

"It's a death by 1,000 cuts. You can't put your finger on any one of them," Will said.

If you go …

What: Colorado Parks and Wildlife public meeting.

When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 3.

Where: Colorado Parks and Wildlife office, located at 88 Wildlife Way in Glenwood Springs.

More information: The meeting is planned to gather input as the agency updates the herd-management plans for Data Analysis Units D-14 (Brush Creek/Game Management Unit 44) and D-53 (Basalt herd/Game Management Unit 444). Draft plans and public comment questionnaires for each deer herd are available on CPW’s Herd Management Planning webpage, cpw.state.co.us/HMP.