2011 Colorado Deer Forecast

The Centennial State is at the top of the food chain as far as mule deer hunting goes. Like all western states, over the years it has had its struggles with ground-cracking droughts, scorching wildfires and deer-killing winters, but it always seems to bounce back. In fact, with over 550,00-plus deer going into this season, and many regions offering buck/doe ratios of the 30, 40, 50 and in some cases even 60 bucks to every 100 does, it's no wonder Colorado is considered one of the top mule deer destinations west of the Mississippi.

Whether you're hunting on the western slope or eastern plains, the consensus is that hunters are in for a treat this year. Having said that, here's  a look at the 2011 Colorado deer forecast.

NORTHWEST

Not only is this region dotted with scenic vistas of sweeping mesas and granite plateaus, but it's also filled with excellent numbers of mule deer bucks. In fact, according to CDOW Statewide Public Information Officer Randy Hampton, this region is home to some GMU's that might just offer some of the best trophy hunting the state has to offer. Although this region sits in the shadow of the famed Uncompangre Plateau to the south and the Gunnison Basin to the southeast, according to Hampton the Bookcliffs deer herd in GMU's 21 and 30 could easily give those legendary regions a run for their trophy-producing money. The latest published post-hunt populations show the Bookcliffs deer herd numbering around 12,000, with a three-year buck/doe ratio average hovering around 38/100. While it takes a number of preference points just to get a tag for this area, those who were patient enough to draw this year are sure to have a good hunt, says Hampton.

The Bookcliffs are not the only units hunters should expect to do well in this season, insists CDOW Terrestrial Biologist Stephanie Duckett. She's been keeping an eye on the deer herds in part of this region for years and, according to her, the mild winter this past season should help to stabilize and even increase deer numbers across much of the region. One such notable is the Rifle Creek deer herd in GMU 33. Numbering over 8,200 strong with a buck/doe ratio right at 34/100, hunters who have a tag for this unit should expect to see good numbers of bucks. Keep in mind also that this unit usually goes undersubscribed so there's a good chance there will be some leftover tags this season.

Other northwest GMU's hunters should do well in are GMU's 41, 42 and 421. This is the North Grand Mesa herd, and although it's managed more for the opportunistic hunter looking to fill the freezer, there are some nice bucks there as well, indicates Duckett. With buck/doe ratios right at 23/100 and overall numbers hanging around 20,000, it won't take hunters long to fill their tags.

Directly south is the South Grand Mesa herd, and while its numbers are not as strong, hunters who are willing to get off the roads and hunt will bump into deer. The latest numbers show the herd to be stable, right at 9,000, with a buck/doe ratio near 20/100.

SOUTHWEST

Although much of the southwest was hit by the harsh winter of 2007/2008, relatively mild conditions the past couple of winters have allowed deer numbers to rebound across much of the region. According to CDOW Terrestrial Biologist Brad Banulis, who operates out of the Montrose office, hunters should see stronger deer numbers than they have seen in recent years; with more 3- to 4-year-old bucks in the herds now, they should also see good numbers of branched-antlered deer.

Last winter, the region had excellent snowfall up high and rather mild conditions in the lower elevations where the deer winter. Because of this, fawn recruitment was very good and overall winter kill was minimal. According to Banulis, although buck/doe ratios are not where they want them, the mild winter was the "shot in the arm" the region needed to get headed in the right direction.

Two of the best deer hunting GMU's are 61 and 62. Known as the Uncompahgre herd, deer numbers hover around 22,000 according to the latest published numbers, with a buck/doe ratio right at 33/100. Although GMU 61 gets most of the attention as far as trophy-class deer are concerned, according to Banulis, GMU 62 is no slouch, either. He concedes that 61 does offer better quality deer with 4- to 6-years-old bucks being the norm for trophy hunters. However, he insists GMU 62 actually has more deer. Although you're not going to see the numbers of older bucks, hunters who drew a GMU 62 tag will see good numbers of 2- to 3-year-old bucks.

Farther south is the Groundhog herd of GMU's 70, 71 and 711, as well as the Mesa Verde herd of the Four Corners region of GMU's 72 and 73. Although these regions don't offer the overall numbers that the Uncompahgre does, because of the mild winter this past year deer numbers are stable to growing, and hunters with a tag in their pocket should have a good hunt. With buck/doe ratios hovering around 25/100 in both herds, hunters who are willing to work a little harder and pick through these vast regions will find the buck they are after.

Another popular area with southwest hunters is the stretch of real estate between Durango and Pagosa Springs. This scenic corner of the state is not only known to harbor good numbers of elk, but deer hunters visiting the region seem to always leave with a smile. The San Juan and Hermosa herds dominate the area and in total encompass GMU's 75, 77, 78, 751, 771, 74 and 741. Although the southern portions of this area are on the inaccessible Southern Ute Indian Reservation, the region still offers lots of excellent public access in which hunters seem to find the deer, season after season. Collectively, last fall the hunter success rate was close to 50 percent. According to Public Information Officer Joe Lewandowski, with this rugged region harboring excellent trophy potential, you can bet there were some older bucks killed in the mix. If the conditions are right, hunters visiting the region this season should see similar numbers.

CENTRAL MOUNTAINS

"Comeback" is the best way to describe what deer hunters can expect when visiting the famed Gunnison Basin and surrounding areas this season. This region was hard hit by the epic winter of 07/08, where an estimated 40 percent of the deer herd succumbed to Mother Nature's harshness. However, area Terrestrial Biologist Brandon Diamond is hoping the mild winter the region experienced last year is a turning point, and concludes if we pull off successive mild winters hunters will start seeing the numbers and trophy-caliber bucks they experienced at the turn of the century.

According to Diamond, hunters the past couple of seasons have experienced a "lag effect," but he expects that to change this season. Although Diamond explains that hunters will notice the missing 3- to 4-year-old age class of deer, there will be plenty of 2- to 3-year-olds to choose from, and if a hunter is willing to pick through the timber he very well could stumble upon a true Gunnison prize.

Despite the lower deer numbers last fall, collectively hunters had an overall success rate of over 57 percent, and expectations are that hunters should experience an even better season this year. With buck/doe ratios in the neighborhood of 30/100, which is an increase from last season, you can understand their optimism.

FRONT RANGE

This long stretch of real estate can be easily broken down into three sections, northern, central and southern, and for the most part, hunters should expect a good season this year. Mild winter conditions blanketed the region, creating stable-to-improving deer hunting opportunities.

The areas west of the Denver Metro area encompasses eight GMU's (20, 29, 38, 39, 46, 51, 391 & 461) and is home to the Bailey, Boulder and Big Thompson deer herds. Collectively, over 20,000 deer roam this vast, populated region, with a buck-to-doe ratio in the area of 40/100. With numbers like this it's easy to see why the overall hunter success rate was around 38 percent last fall and, according to Hampton, hunters should see the same results this season if the conditions are right.

The region west of Colorado Springs encompasses eight GMU's that harbor the Rampart Range and South Park deer herds. It offers a mix of both private and public ground. If the overall deer numbers are any indication, hunters there should have a good season this year. Collectively, over 8,000 deer call this region home, with GMU's 59, 511, 512 and 591 (Rampart) offering a buck/doe ratio of 50/100. GMU's 50, 500 and 501 (South Park) come in lower, with about half as many. Keep in mind also that this area is managed more for hunter opportunity, so don't expect to see huge numbers of adult bucks, but don't settle for a fork horn, either. According to area outfitter Bob Port, of Cowboy Camp Outfitters, hunting has really improved since the inception of a total draw system, and several of his hunters take really nice bucks every year.

The Southern Front Range encompasses the Wet Mountain and Trinidad deer herds. With nearly 20,000 deer calling the hills there home, you can expect hunters to have a pretty good season this year. In GMU's 69, 84, 86, 691 and 861, buck/doe ratios are right at 34/100, and farther south in GMU's 85, 851 and 140 ratios are slightly less at 33/100. Regardless, with buck numbers hovering in the 30's, hunters shouldn't waylay the first young buck they see.

EASTERN PLAINS

Although Colorado's eastern plains are known more for their antelope populations, hunters looking to drag a gagger mule deer, or whitetail for that matter, out of the woods should seriously consider this vast expanse of prairie short grass, cactus and riparian river bottoms. Deer numbers have been growing in this region, and with the more aggressive whitetails encompassing an even larger range, if you hunt in the right spot you just might come away with a Booner.

Snaking its way from the northeast corner of the state is the South Platte River drainage, and straddling its banks are GMU's 91, 92, 94, 96 and 951. Tags are extremely limited in this whitetail river bottom stronghold, but for those who have one, they are sure to have a superb season this year. Hunter success averages close to 50 percent for most of these GMU's, and with a buck-to-ratio hovering around 40/100, CDOW Public Information Officer Jennifer Churchill indicated that hunter success should be pretty good. Although much of this region is privately owned, there are over 20 SWA's that offer over 32,000 acres of public access.

Stretching across the far east-central section of the Colorado border is the South Republican deer herd that encompasses GMU's 103, 109, 116 and 117. Buck/doe ratios are strong in this region at 60/100, with deer numbers stable to increasing. Hunters who put their time in should have a very good hunt. Collectively, typical hunter success is usually over 50 percent and up to 60 percent in some cases, and there's no reason why hunters can't see those numbers this season, too. Those who were lucky enough to collect a tag should consider spending time in the South Republic and Sedgwick Bar SWA's. With these areas offering over 14,000 acres of public access, there's plenty of room for the limited number of hunters to roam.

Rounding out this year's Colorado deer forecast is the Arkansas River and Las Animas deer herds, which straddle the Arkansas River from the Kansas border to Pueblo. Whitetail numbers have grown exponentially over the last decade along the river bottom in this region. When you include both whitetail and mule deer numbers together, the latest population estimates show them to be around 12,000 strong, with buck/doe ratios right at 50/100. For a hunter looking to anchor a wide-racked mule deer or heavy-horned whitetail, those are impressive numbers.

Although much of the hunting opportunities found in this region lie behind "No Trespassing" signs, Michael Seraphin, CDOW public information officer of the Southeast Region, indicates there are plenty of places to hunt for those unwilling to pay a hefty trespass fee. Numerous SWA's are sprinkled along the river bottom that hold good numbers of deer, and with the implementation of the Big Game Access Program a few years ago, hunters can also gain access to private ground for a minimal fee. This program gives hunters nearly 100,000 acres of private ground to access in the southeast corner of the state.

Needless to say, with access so strong in the southeast, as well as the hefty buck numbers, hunters with a tag in their pocket are bound to lower the crosshairs on some head-bone this season.

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