Mild winters, changing landscape and absence of predators combine to affect management plan
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — The local elk herd could grow significantly in the next few years, as dead and dying lodgepole pine forests make way — at least temporarily — for knee- and waist-high grasses that provide rich feeding grounds for the ungulates.
Combined with warmer winters, the changing landscape in Summit County could support a higher population than is currently targeted by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, according to Kirk Oldham, the terrestrial biologist for the agency who is currently revamping the 10-year plan for the game animals.
Given the absence of wolves, the only significant natural predators of elk, management of the herds is almost completely dependent on hunting for population control. Severe winters, of which there have been fewer and fewer lately, is the other big factor that can lead to mortality.
“Biologically, there’s a higher carrying capacity than what we’ve been managing for,” Oldham said this week as he updated the Summit County commissioners on possible changes to the elk herd. Oldham said the agency’s target numbers are based in part on the carrying capacity of the land, and partially on what’s considered socially and politically acceptable.
“There’s more understory in areas of dead lodgepole … that’s great for elk populations. And it’s helping reduce some of the pressure on private landowners,” he added.
The numbers in the current plan were partially based on input from ranchers concerned about elk grazing on ranch lands at the north end of Summit County and in Grand County. But widespread beetle kill and a changing climate have altered the equation.
Elk — and deer — are finding winter food in places where it hasn’t been available. The animals aren’t as quick to move to the lower elevation areas that are mostly on private lands. In some cases, they’re staying in the high country through January, said area wildlife manager Shannon Schwab.
That makes hunting more challenging but also takes some of the pressure off the private lands, opening the door for an increase in the herd size, according to Oldham.
Right now, the agency estimates that about 3,000 elk live in Summit County, with a total of about 5.700 in what the wildlife managers call the Williams Fork herd.
Several alternatives in the proposed management plan target population numbers ranging from 4,700 up to a maximum of 6,000 elk.
For the sake of comparison, the wildlife experts said that, as recently as the early 1990s, there may have been up to 10,000 elk living in the area. That number led to many concerns about impacts to private lands. As a result, the division sought to reduce the numbers drastically with liberal access to over-the-counter licenses.
The effort was partially successful, but the population numbers are still above the agency’s target level. Get all the details, including a detailed description of the proposed alternatives at the CDOW website.