Deep snow near Craig in February 2023 made it difficult for elk to forage, causing many to suffer malnutrition or starve. (R. Gonzales, Colorado Parks and Wildlife)
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When the storms bearing more snow than people had seen in years came to northwestern Colorado last winter, they were full of promise.
Of creeks and rivers bursting at their seams. Of reservoirs finally full again. Of ground so saturated, fires like the ones that had burned the previous summers might not be able to take hold.
But the slow-moving fronts that dropped snow in four-foot increments brought no help for the deer, elk, moose and pronghorn that forage near the towns of Maybell, Meeker, Rangely, Dinosaur and Craig. For them, the precipitation that fell, the winds that blew and the temperatures that hovered below zero for weeks on end meant death in numbers not seen in decades.
Rachael Gonzales, the northwest region public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, wrote as much in a post on the agency’s website dated March 28:
“It has been a tough winter for wildlife. … Since the start of the season the National Weather Service’s Maybell weather station has recorded over 80 inches of snow for the area. Prolonged snow combined with strong gusty winds have made an already hard time of year for wildlife even more difficult. Food has been extremely difficult for big game to find as much of it is covered by deep, hard-packed snow. This has forced thousands of animals to migrate farther west than they typically do, burning much-needed fat and calories they likely won’t replenish.”
She then relayed a story of a bull elk she saw while on a ride-along with District Wildlife Manager Jeffrey Goncalves in the region:
“…we noticed a mature bull elk that was unable to get up after several attempts. After watching and evaluating the elk for several minutes, the decision was made to euthanize the bull so it would no longer suffer from starvation.”
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And she said that in addition to mortality from malnutrition, wildlife officials had seen an increase in animals injured or killed from vehicle collisions.
With normal migration routes difficult for wildlife to navigate, they had resorted to using roadways as they searched for food. Sometimes that food was located on a narrow shoulder along a windy section of road, Gonzales wrote. On Jan. 14, a semi traveling eastbound from Utah on U.S. 40 hit 35 pronghorn on the road, and on Jan. 19, another driver hit a group of 18 near Craig. Over the course of the winter, district wildlife managers in the northwest region responded to four incidents involving vehicle collisions with groups of 10 or more of the animals.
On April 5, the Rio Blanco Herald Times, a newspaper serving the northwest region, quoted now-retired CPW wildlife manager Bill deVergie as saying deer fawn survival was in the 30% range and heading toward 20%; elk calf survival was 35% to 40% of normal; and only 10% of pronghorn fawns, the hardest hit, were surviving.
CPW said it was one of the worst winters for wildlife it had ever seen, despite massive efforts to help the animals. Area managers had dropped tons of hay for them to eat, and local ranchers had left barn doors open, welcoming them in. But in the end a catastrophic number of Colorado’s healthiest ungulate herds died.
As bad as the winter of 2023 was for wildlife in the corner of Colorado bounded by Wyoming and Utah, however, it could also be bad for thousands of people who live in the same region and rely on the big-game hunting seasons that start in mid August and run through November.
Historic mortality leads to drastic cuts in hunting licenses
Emails from CPW started going out to hunters who put in for the draw the first week of June. Once hunters know they’ve scored a tag, many start planning their trips. But Cody Nelson, who owns Moosehead Lodge in Rangely, 13 miles east of the Utah border, in the White River Valley, said she can “already see a dramatic decrease in bookings from previous years.”
“To be honest, there was a little bit of worry even before the reductions were announced,” she said. “I totally understand why CPW is doing what they’re doing, but I don’t know what it’ll mean for the area as a whole.”
Even over-the-counter tags, which are set by the Colorado state legislature and available in August to any hunter for a certain price after the limited draw is over, were affected. While CPW didn’t reduce the number, it did shorten two seasons in which hunters could use over-the-counter tags for elk in the severe-winter zone — downsizing one season to five days from nine and another to five days from seven.
I totally understand why CPW is doing what they’re doing, but I don’t know what it’ll mean for the area as a whole.
— Cody Nelson, who owns Moosehead Lodge in Rangely
Rooms at Nelson’s lodge range from $85 to $105 per night and she says she books up during hunting season. With nine lodge rooms and seven cabins booked seven days a week at an average of $95 per night, Nelson could lose more than $100,000 between the start of the deer, elk, and pronghorn hunting seasons, in mid-August, and the end, in December.
Hunters also need to eat, buy last-minute supplies and maybe treat themselves to a few shots of whiskey after their hunts, so that’s more money they spend and more tax revenue for the town of 2,200.
Dylan LeBleu, a dispatcher for the Rangely Police Department, says that while Rangely isn’t a “hunting town,” he’s part of a community of hunters who rely on game meat to fill their freezers. “We have a market here, but not anything big, and it’s a little expensive,” he says, “and the nearest Walmart is an hour away.”
A pound of “all natural” 97% lean ground beef at Walmart currently costs around $7. This multiplied by the estimated 160 pounds of meat a hunter can typically harvest from an average-size 500-pound elk equates to $1,120. Add the cost of gas to drive 100 miles round trip to the Walmart in Vernal, Utah, and back, and subtract the $63 cost of an over-the-counter license to hunt for an elk, and no matter how you look at it, it’s more affordable for a local to hunt than it is to buy their meat from a grocery store.
Debbie Fitch and her family own several businesses associated with their Fitch Ranch in Parshall, so they likely won’t be as impacted as some due to the size and diversity of their enterprise. “But a lot of people’s livelihoods in this part of the country rely on hunting revenue and I think it’s going to be a tough year for a lot of them,” she said.
“For restaurants, outfitters, processors, taxidermists. They’ll be impacted in multiple ways. And then there’s just … the wildlife out here. It’s so sad,” she added. “It was hard to look at. We had one elk that just laid down in our yard next to our hay bales and that was it. You’ve never seen so many dead animals on the side of the road, either.”
Then there are the outfitters who guide hunters who’ve either won a tag in the lottery, purchased one in person, or paid a landowner equipped with a specialized CPW “landowner preference program” voucher to hunt the landowner’s property.
Tyler Emrick, who owns and operates CJ Outfitters outside of Craig with his wife, Michelle, offers fully and semiguided deer, elk, moose, bear and mountain lion hunts for prices ranging from $3,500 to $10,000 per person. Like Fitch, he says the economic impacts he’ll endure this season will be limited compared with others because he has diversified his hunts geographically and now has permits to guide in Wyoming as well as Colorado.
How much CPW’s annual budget could be hit with 32,000 fewer hunters.
But the Colorado towns of Craig, Meeker, Rangely, Maybell and “maybe, especially Dinosaur,” near the Utah border, “will be hurt because each of these places depend on the hunter harvest for their economy,” Emrick said. He knows an outfitter participating in CPW’s landowner program who “normally gets 12 to 14 licenses, and this year he’s getting three to five. It’s those small guys that depend on that $15,000 to $30,000 to pay for hay that are going to be hit hard. I do believe Meeker County will feel it hardest because even though it’s a rich county because of oil, there’s still all those restaurants. And a new brewery that just moved in. And I don’t know how many public hunters will come.”
Public lands hunters often purchase over-the-counter tags if they came up empty-handed in the lottery. But Emrick wonders if OTC hunters will avoid traveling to units in the severe-winter zone given the new shorter seasons.
“I don’t know if anyone will come out for five days or hit some other places out of state that weren’t hit like we were,” he says.
Cuts will affect CPW’s budget, too
The Colorado Wildlife Council says hunting is a $843 million industry in Colorado. And, combined with fishing, hunters contribute $3.25 billion and 25,000 jobs to the state economy.
Those potentially 32,000 hunters who could have purchased the eliminated tags? Their absence and the revenue associated with it could impact CPW’s annual budget by as much as $8 million, the agency says.
CPW employs a “user pays” model of funding in which hunting and fishing licenses, federal excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment and license applications contribute millions of dollars to the agency’s budget.
“But statistics do show that nonresident hunters are gone from home for eight to nine days on average including travel time and that they hunt five days,” Emrick said. “So with those numbers, it could either be really good or really, really bad. Easier to say hindsight is 20/20, we don’t know yet. I hope everyone can make it through, but I’m sure some outfitters could go under this year.”
Hunters fear for big game
No matter what happens to the humans, the CPW commission stands by its reductions, saying they are the only way to bring the decimated herds back to healthy numbers.
But at its May 3 meeting to discuss license reductions, Emrick and a handful of other hunters, ranchers and outfitters said they wished the agency would do more.
In a letter to the commission beforehand, the Colorado Wildlife Conservation Project, consisting of 11 members representing tens of thousands of hunters, anglers, conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts, said it was willing to take “further reductions to limited licenses and/or temporary suspensions or caps on over-the-counter licenses” to address the problem, while recognizing “fewer hunting opportunities would mean fewer trips and lost revenue for the state and rural communities on multiple fronts.”
Others who spoke during the public comment period asked the commission to add a mandatory hunter harvest survey to get a clearer picture of what’s happening with various species in the severe-winter zone, adding that a penalty that revokes hunters’ privileges to apply for a license the next year if the hunter doesn’t complete the survey would round out the deal.
Emrick asked CPW to make “an immediate emergency declaration and end cow hunting in (units affected by the severe winter) along with the whole northwest, or offer a minimum of 10 tags.” He also asked the commission to limit either-sex elk hunting in certain months because “when a hunter harvests a cow they could be killing three elk with one bullet.”
But as managers had pointed out earlier in the meeting, the average success rate among elk hunters is just 20%, which means with a limit of 10 licenses there’s a good possibility only two elk in one of the severe-winter zone units would be killed.
CPW manages its herds for the health of the population as well as for hunters. This means it keeps hunters in mind when making “sex ratio” decisions — how many antlerless deer to make available for hunting and how many antlered deer, for instance. And the agency expects the lowered number of licenses to help herd health start improving immediately. So maybe the decision to stick with the reductions rather than make further cuts will take some of the sting out of the deadliest winter for wildlife CPW can remember, at least for humans.