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Dealing with a declining elk population in Pagosa Country

What is the state of the elk and deer herds in southwest Colorado?

This was one of the main concerns discussed at last week’s Archuleta County Farm Bureau Wildlife Meeting.

The meeting was held at the conclusion of big-game hunting season in Archuleta County. In attendance were many local guides, outfitters, sportsmen and Colorado Parks and Wildlife managers, as well as a good amount of representation from the San Luis Valley.

President of the Archuleta County Farm Bureau Ray Lattin was the moderator of the meeting. Lattin said in an interview with SUN staff that, as far as he knows, this meeting was the first of its kind with people from the business, agricultural, sportsmen and outfitting communities in attendance.

The meeting came about after Lattin and other representatives at the Farm Bureau received queries and complaints about the depletion of the area’s elk population and predator control.

Local outfitter Dick Ray sees the decline as a multilayered problem. Ray stated that more than too many licenses are being issued, cows and bulls were being shot and not recovered, the herds are getting hit on the sides of the road, and are being hunted by predators such as coyotes, mountain lions and bears, and getting hung up in fencing, which has greatly increased in the past several decades.

As of now, there are no numbers out regarding the elk count, but there were many firsthand accounts given by people familiar with the area and with the herd.

The general consensus of the meeting, though by no means a unanimous agreement, was the elk herd population is in decline. This consensus, however, does not negate that, in the Pagosa districts, the 2011 season was one of the best hunting seasons in the last 30 years. The high number of bulls harvested in the Pagosa area was not mirrored in other areas of southwest Colorado.

North of the Continental Divide lies Colorado Parks and Wildlife Game Management Unit (GMU) 76, known to sportsmen simply as “the 76.” The unit encompasses portions of Hinsdale and Mineral counties, including Creede. In unit 76, there is a draw for an elk tag. An average wait period to draw a bull elk tag is 13 years. This year, however, many people hunting in unit 76 were upset.

“Pagosa had an extremely heavy bull harvest this year,” Lattin said, but the 76 didn’t. The early and heavy snow in early November pushed the elk down from the high country. The elk crossed the Continental Divide and headed south, out of 76 and into Pagosa GMUs 77 and 78 where over-the-counter bull tags can be purchased.

Mike Reid, local Parks and Wildlife manager, said that as far as an elk count is concerned, “everyone is seeing their own part of the elephant.” Depending on individual perspective, some have seen a good number of bulls and some may have barely seen any.

Reid went on to say that, if individuals give heed to the counting model utilized by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the elk population is down to 17,000 from 24,000 in the ’80s. Reid added, though, that one of the problems with the model used was that one of the first numbers used was a guess.

Whether or not the model is believed, those in attendance at the meeting were in agreement that elk population is down and the number of predators is up.

“There are too many predators. It’s out of balance,” Lattin said. “A lot of people have reported not seeing any rabbits or squirrels in the high country. That’s due to predators.”

There was no over-arching solution to these issues at the meeting;,however, and the discussion will continue.

After the Division of Parks and Wildlife releases the elk count in early spring 2012, Lattin says the Farm Bureau will hold another open meeting for all interested parties to constructively discuss solutions. Though nothing is yet certain, Lattin said that, after the second meeting, different solutions will be taken to government representatives.

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