Thousands of elk, deer and antelope have been migrating out of northwestern Colorado due to hard winter conditions and many have died of starvation, forcing state wildlife managers to consider cutting the number of hunting licenses they issue by more than 40%.
Deep, hard-packed snow covering rangeland already devastated by drought has made it difficult for these animals to find enough food, forcing many to graze along roads as they move, Colorado Parks and Wildlife managers announced Tuesday morning. Vehicle collisions with wildlife this past winter also took an exceptional toll.
Semi-trucks whizzing east from Utah into Colorado along U.S. 40 plowed through antelope herds and killed more than ten on at least four occasions, CPW officials said.
Wildlife managers charged with determining how much hunting can be sustained were wrestling with difficult decisions. Northwestern Colorado towns and ranches rely on revenues from hunting. Reducing hunting licenses would intensify the economic challenges communities face as coal mining and other extractive industries dwindle.
“That’s what makes these decisions the hardest,” CPW’s area wildlife manager Bill de Vergie said in an agency statement. “It’s something we had to do.”
Multiple factors including persistent summer drought conditions and above-average snowfall during the winter led to poor conditions for animals. Many elk and deer have died of starvation, CPW officials said, and thousands of animals have migrated farther west than they typically do, burning off fat and calories they need to survive, trying to find food.
CPW crews working with landowners who raise cattle have dropped off more than 100 tons of hay in an effort to provide food.
Two pronghorn-vehicle collisions stood out as especially deadly, CPW officials said. On Jan. 14, a semi-truck rolling east near Dinosaur hit 35 pronghorn on the road. On Jan. 19, a pickup truck on a county road near Craig hit 18 more.
It’s unclear whether elk, deer and pronghorn able to migrate away from northwestern Colorado in search of food will return. State biologists using data from radio collars attached to deer in the White River herd and elk in the Bear’s Ears herd planned to monitor movements and estimate survival rates.
For recovery, the biologists pointed out that elevated snowpack in northwestern Colorado — measured at levels about 143% of the 30-year norm – may help replenish natural springs that in recent years had run dry. This could help wildlife endure a hot summer.
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