Hunters up in arms over anticipated reduction of pronghorn, mule deer, & elk quotas
DENVER, CHEYENNE––Unusually heavy snowfall in northwestern Colorado and south-central Wyoming, causing unusually heavy deaths of pronghorn, mule deer, and elk from late winter starvation, has the Colorado Parks & Wildlife Department and the Wyoming Fish & Game Department looking at reductions of up to 40% in hunting license sales.
Both agencies are economically dependent upon hunting license sales.
More predator permits?
To compensate for lost revenue from pronghorn, mule deer and elk hunters, both agencies are likely to escalate already aggressive efforts to sell permits to hunt predators of pronghorn, mule deer and elk, on the pretext of improving the survival rates for pronghorn and deer fawns and elk calves, to help rebuild the depleted populations.
In addition, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, the Colorado Outfitters Association, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and the anti-wolf front Coloradans for Responsible Wildlife Management can be expected to use the heavy 2023 winter kill as excuse for further delay in implementing a wolf reintroduction mandated by Colorado votes with the passage of Proposition 114 in November 2020.
Defeated in every rural county, Proposition 114 squeaked through to passage by a narrow 50.9% margin, encouraging the anti-wolf faction to hope that sufficient stalling might bring about a reversal of the outcome in a future election.
Persecuting predators helped to cause crisis
What neither the Colorado Parks & Wildlife Department nor the Wyoming Fish & Game Department are likely to admit is that persecuting predators had much to do with causing the severity of winter kill in early 2023.
Simply put, the Colorado Parks & Wildlife Department and the Wyoming Fish & Game Department have grown used to maintaining pronghorn, mule deer, and elk populations far in excess of what the Rocky Mountains range would currently support through severe winters, counting upon fall hunting pressure rather than natural predation all year round to prevent winter kill.
Natural reset to carrying capacity
Now, after decades of pursuing wildlife management policies meant to please a constituency of hunters, hunting guides, and outfitters, the Colorado Parks & Wildlife Department and the Wyoming Fish & Game Department are seeing a natural reset to the carrying capacity of the habitat.
Allowing normal predation by pumas, wolves, bobcats, coyotes, and bears during the coming spring and fall could prevent future winter kill by ensuring smaller and healthier pronghorn, mule deer, and elk herds going into the next winter.
But fewer living targets and fewer hunting license sales is the last thing that the Colorado and Wyoming hunting industries want.
Predators are easily blamed for their woes.
Highest winter mortality in close to 40 years
“As the intense winter weather continues,” observed Steamboat Pilot sports editor Tom Skulski on March 30, 2023, “the mortality rates of big game are the highest the area has seen since the mid-1980s, according to Colorado Parks & Wildlife wrote, “and what started as a catastrophic winter for younger animals has begun to affect the adult antelope [pronghorn], deer, and elk as well.
“Biologists are suggesting a 40% decrease in licenses compared to the typical amount distributed annually,” continued Skulski, not mentioning that even if the traditional numbers of hunting permits are put up for sale, discouraged hunters are likely to buy a lot fewer of them.
“The reduction proposal is a recommendation and will be presented for official approval at the Colorado Parks & Wildlife Commission meeting in May,” Skulski finished.
Worst winter in Wyoming since 1949
“The wildlife winter kill in south central Wyoming is the worst anybody there can remember, some locals are saying,” wrote Cowboy State Daily outdoors reporter Mark Heinz a week earlier.
“It goes on for miles: dead animal after dead animal after dead animal,” Wyoming state senator Larry Hicks told Heinz. “The antelope [pronghorn] are dying by the thousands.
“Our mule deer are probably going to have 50% mortality,” Hicks guessed. “We’re probably going to be pushing 70-80% of our antelope population that will die this winter.”
Continued Heinz, “The bleak feeding conditions are as bad as any of the locals can remember, Hicks said. “Even old timers who lived through the legendary winter of 1949 have told him what they’re seeing now is worse.”
Elk too are affected.
Outfitter and pilot Bo Stacks told Heinz that while, “Usually the elk are pretty tough and don’t have much die-off,” currently “when I fly over, they don’t even look up because they’re so weak. They don’t even do anything.”
Explained Hicks, “We got heavy snow early on, then some rain on top of it. Then we got sub-zero temperatures that froze everything up solid, and even more snow. The animals just can’t move or paw their way down through the snow to get food.
“They’re trapped. They can’t migrate. And even if they could, I’m not sure where they could go. They’re stuck in the same small dry patches where they’ve been for three weeks. They’ve eaten all the juniper trees. Even the sagebrush is gone in some places. They’re down to eating wood and dirt.”
Since many of the dying animals are pregnant does, “We’re also losing an entire fawn crop,” Hicks added.
Offered Stacks, “Usually March and April are the worst times for snow and die-off,” but this year winter kill started in January.
What the Colorado and Wyoming pundits did not mention is that both states’ wildlife management policies are skewed toward producing a “huntable surplus” of pronghorn, deer, and elk by encouraging hunters to kill far more bucks and bulls than does and cows.
Pronghorn, deer, and elk all birth approximately equal numbers of male and female offspring. If hunters shot approximately equal numbers of males and females, the overwintering population each year would consist of about half males, half females, and stable population numbers.
Skewed gender ratios mean more fawns
Instead, Colorado hunters in 2022 shot 29,397 mule deer bucks, 8,092 mule deer does, and 558 fawns. As the surviving bucks likely impregnated all of the surviving does, the mule deer herd going into the winter––under normal conditions––could have replenished itself two or three times over.
Similarly skewed overwintering gender ratios resulted from hunters shooting 23,125 bull elk, but only 15,891 cows and 1,407 calves, and shooting 5,798 pronghorn bucks, against only 3,750 pronghorn does and 295 pronghorn fawns.
Shooting a gender ratio skewed toward bucks year after year results in a perpetual “huntable surplus,” beginning with a spring and summer population consisting disproportionately of fawns and calves, the animals most vulnerable to predators.
Bobcats & coyotes
To ensure that predation does not deplete the “huntable surplus” each year before hunting season, the Colorado Parks & Wildlife Commission has recently expanded puma and bear hunting, including by allowing use of electronic predator calls that mimic distressed animals.
In addition to killing around 500 pumas and 1,5000 bears per year, Colorado hunters and trappers kill from 1,800 to 2,000 bobcats and close to 40,000 coyotes, with no bag limits on either species.
Hunting industry political influence is such that in the Colorado 2022 legislative session a bill that would have halted hunting of puma, bobcat, and Canadian lynx––a species repeatedly nominated for endangered status––was rejected by the Colorado Senate Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee after a single hearing.
Jamaka Petzak says
Idiotic, ill-advised, senseless, and heartbreaking.
Sharing with gratitude…
Don’t let anyone tell you that hunting, as practiced in the US today, is about “keeping the animal population down” or “restoring nature’s balance. ” It’s an industry–shrinking yet still very lucrative.