White River elk herd among the largest in nation
By Jeff Burkhead
Special to the Hunting Guide
If northwest Colorado doesn't have the biggest elk herd in the nation, then it's certainly one of the biggest.
"I can't tell you off the top of my head, but the White River herd is probably the largest, definitely the largest in Colorado, and probably in the nation," said Dan Prenzlow, estimating the number of elk in this part of the state at around 80,000.
And he should know. Prenzlow is the former Meeker area wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife who was recently promoted to one of four regional managers in the state. He won't get any argument from Hal Pearce, range technician for the U.S. Forest Service in Meeker.
"I know it is a fairly substantial percentage (of Colorado's elk population,)" Pearce said. "It seems to me that the White River herd is one of the largest."
If you are a trophy hunter, then northwest Colorado offers exactly what you are looking for - quality, large elk. Probably the most well-known area for large elk is Unit 10, but there are other areas as well, such as Unit 2 and Unit 201.
"We've got a lot of elk," Pearce said. "That's a big draw. Some areas don't have the huge bulls, but we do have a large elk herd. The potential for good hunter success rates very high. Everybody would like a trophy bull, but not everybody is a trophy bull hunter."
Managing these prime hunting areas is a big job.
"We work about seven days a week and many hours a day," Prenzlow said. "Generally, there are three peak times for us. The applications and brochures come out in March, then usually around May to June, when the actual licenses come out. And, obviously, the busiest time is September through December, which is the main big-game hunting season."
Every five years, the Division of Wildlife re-evaluates its strategy for managing its hunting areas. The division updated its most recent plan in 2005. That includes doing a count of the elk population.
"It's a pretty broad process," Prenzlow said. "It involves a lot of science and some art. You create a model, and then make a determination. You take into account previous years. You're trying to find trends."
It's an ongoing process.
"You are continually improving what you can verify and see on the ground and in harvest surveys," Prenzlow said.
The five-year review covers everything.
"It covers all things from length, the time of year they go in, to how many archery tags, how many muzzleloader tags," said Hal Pearce of the U.S. Forest Service, who attended one of the recent public meetings. "It includes herd management strategies, as far as bull to cow rations, that sort of thing. It's all encompassing."
It also includes licensing requirements, which can be a touchy subject.
Demand for licenses is high. For example, there will be thousands of hunters applying for a license to hunt in Unit 10. Only a small number somewhere in the 30 to 50 range - will actually receive a license. It's not a random draw. It's all based on the accumulation of preference points.
That's where things can get touchy.
"The controversy is over accumulating enough preference points to go on that dream hunt you want to go on," Pearce said.
But, even if hunters don't have enough points to qualify for an area famous for large elk like Unit 10, northwest Colorado has plenty to offer for everyone.
"Deer are pretty well sought after here," Prenzlow said, "but trophy elk would be the biggest draw."
The state's largest concentration of elk is in northwest Colorado the area between Utah, Steamboat Springs, Wyoming and Interstate 70. Despite the record elk harvest of 2004, it ended that hunting season with more than 81,000 elk and they are a growing problem for ranchers, breaking down fences, eating hay intended for domestic livestock and competing with cattle for winter range.
With a statewide elk population pushing 300,000, a relatively small area in the northwest corner sports about 30 percent of quality animals.
Harvest statistics for the 2005 hunting season are still being compiled by the Division of Wildlife, but indications are that the elk kill was lower than in 2004. That means more licenses - certainly more cow licenses will be issued this year.