To the casual observer, it may appear that mule deer in the Gunnison Basin are in trouble, given the onslaught of heavy snowfall over the last month. It’s resulted in impossible-to-ignore roadkill and deer lining the sides of busy highways.
However, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) terrestrial biologist Kevin Blecha provided an alternative point of view Monday during a meeting devoted to big game in the basin. Not only is deer mortality about average this winter, he explained, but a dry winter of 2017-18 paired with overly conservative management of deer numbers is leading the agency to recommend an increase in deer licenses for the coming fall.
“What we’re trying to do is use the resource while it’s available,” Blecha said.
The news appeared contrary to perception of the current state of affairs for some sportsmen in attendance at Monday’s meeting at Western Colorado University, which saw a turnout of about 80 wildlife enthusiasts. However, Blecha provided data to back his perspective.
Each winter, CPW conducts flights during which age class and male-female ratios are derived from a sample of a herd’s overall population. Those figures are then plugged into an ever-evolving “model” alongside hunter success survey data from the previous fall, giving the agency a projected number of animals in a specific game management unit as well as age class distribution.
The model helps wildlife managers determine the number of licenses to dole out for the coming fall. Recommendations are then forwarded to the state’s Parks and Wildlife Commission, and final license numbers are approved by the commission each May. Deer tags are only available through a limited licensing, or “draw,” process, for which the number of applicants typically far outnumber licenses available.
While CPW did not unveil its recommendations for 2019 license numbers at Monday’s meeting — as has been the case historically at the late-March big-game gathering (see sidebar) — Blecha did indicate the agency’s general intent for the coming fall.
That means distributing enough male deer, or buck, licences to return to the targeted harvest level of 2016. Then, CPW issued a total of 1,820 deer tags for the basin’s five game management units, compared to 1,055 licenses last year.
“We’ve got a lot of bucks out there,” Blecha said. “We have never seen mature percentages like this ever. That is following last year’s harvest. … The problem is you can’t stockpile bucks.”
As it turns out, winter 2016-17 did not impact adult deer survival as much as previously thought. In short, CPW’s model has been under-predicting the number of bucks available for harvest over the last four years.
To boot, Blecha reported excellent doe and fawn survival in 2018; excellent fawn body condition entering winter 2018-19; and record-high ratios of fawns.
In addition to the annual classification flights, CPW is conducting a long-term monitoring study of deer in the basin. Through the study, CPW monitors about 90 does and 60 fawns. Data show that currently, fawn survival is average for this time of year — at 70 percent. In comparison, during winter 2016-17, the survival rate for fawns by the end of March was about 30 percent — and declined to less than 20 percent by mid-June.
And while CPW continues to receive questions about feeding big-game animals, mounting evidence — including information derived locally following the agency’s efforts to “bait” animals away from busy roadways in 2017 — suggests that it causes more problems than it attempts to solve.
Further, Blecha noted that deer move frequently between game management units — especially in extreme winters. But large-scale feeding operations may hold elk and deer in an area when they otherwise would have moved to more suitable ground.
Still, some attendees at Monday’s meeting cited high roadkill numbers in recent weeks and possible starvation this past winter as cause for wanting to see fewer buck licenses distributed for the coming fall (doe tags aren’t being offered in local units this year).
“We have a voice in this. It’s our wildlife,” said Spencer Nicholl of Ohio City after calling for a show of hands in support of fewer tags.
However, Blecha argued that perception based on concentration of animals doesn’t match reality. While he conceded that roadkill this year appears higher than average, he said that the death of deer caused by traffic doesn’t appear significant based on overall estimated mortality this year.
“Deer are dying in mass quantities every year in this basin whether we see it or not,” he said. “(Two years ago) you couldn’t see those deaths. You couldn’t see them from Hwy. 50. This year is a much different story.”
Blecha also hinted that CPW will be recommending fewer elk tags for the coming fall in local units as compared to last year.
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
LICENSE RECOMMENDATIONS WITHHELD
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) officials indicated Monday that recommendations for big-game license numbers for fall hunts will no longer be released to the public during a meeting which has occurred annually in late March.
In past years, the figures were presented to the public at the annual licensing gathering in Gunnison, allowing hunters to ask questions and provide feedback on the suggested tag numbers, which are approved by Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission each May.
CPW Gunnison Area Wildlife Manager J Wenum said his office first learned of the new commission policy late last week. The reason for the change is that in the past, commissioners have received calls about the recommendations before they’ve had a chance to see those figures themselves.
Parks and Wildlife Commission Chairman John Howard did not respond to a request for comment about the change in policy as of press time.