Colorado Public Land Deer Preview
August 14, 2017
After visiting with several CPW officials, it seems that 2017 should offer another great season for Colorado public land deer.
By Roger Wheaton
Colorado's devastating 2007-2008 winter nearly decimated many of the state's deer herds, with an estimated 50 percent mortality rate in some areas, especially in western and northwestern game management units.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife are still battling to overcome objective management shortfalls in some of those units with varying degrees of success; however, CPW big game manager Andy Holland said success and harvest statistics seemed to remain pretty consistent since.
Careful management, habitat improvement projects, and license sale management have preserved hunter satisfaction and success despite hardships. The western third of the state likely will have license numbers reduced, but hunting should remain good with fewer hunters in the woods.
After visiting with several CPW officials, it seems that 2017 should offer another great season. As always, Mother Nature's weather conditions will ultimately determine the degree of success. Following are the experts' opinions on where to find your trophy this fall.
This region ranges from the Kansas border westward to the high peaks of the Continental Divide. Nearly 60,000 deer, 50 percent of which are whitetails, share the lower flatlands generally east of I-25. Mule deer become dominant as the terrain begins to climb into the clouds.
Janet George, CPW biologist, said quality mule deer and whitetails are well distributed throughout the eastern segment of her region. But recent floods in 2013 and 2015 below Greeley caused some deer to migrate out of the bottomlands, George noted. Yuma County is the only northeastern county to record a Boone and Crockett mule deer — a total of four entries.
Deer will be found along the South Platte and Republican River valleys and tributaries. Numerous state wildlife areas along the South Platte and Republican River valleys create public access in this area, which is largely private property. George advised hunters to try those SWAs that are farther from Denver during the week, if possible, to reduce congestion.
Segments of the nearly 200,000- acre Pawnee National Grassland also offer public access to hunters north of the South Platte River valley. Mule deer are the predominant species in the Grasslands. They tend to avoid the open terrain in favor of breaks, canyons, gullies and brushy areas.
Some South Park deer inhabit the very high country, but more will be found in the brushy habitat east of the Park, especially late in the season. The Red Feather herd north and west of Fort Collins is in excellent shape and growing in numbers. These two herds offer the best public access in the northeast region, although hunter success numbers are below state averages. Both are fairly easy draws.
Chronic wasting disease impacts units along the Wyoming border. This season will see mandatory testing for randomly selected licensees. Those who draw a mandatory CWD check with their license will receive a free inspection. Others may also request a check, but will have to pay for it.
The northwest region is blessed with abundant public access. Some areas are still below optimal management objectives, and winter again hammered deer in some segments north and northwest of Yampa Valley.
The White River herd is Colorado's largest, though numbers have been down a little. CPW senior wildlife biologist Brad Petch noted that there are trophy bucks galore in the northwest region. He also said high buck to doe ratios throughout the region may lead to an increase in the number of buck licenses this year, although some units may see a decrease.
Petch said the Middle Park herd, which is managed for numbers, is doing very well. He also tabbed Eagle County north of I-70, the State Bridge area, and Wolcott area as being healthy and robust. Big bucks are prominent in GMU 44 near Eagle south of I-70 and unit 40 — both managed for big bucks.
Units in the west and southwest segment of the northwest region are below objective levels. Though numbers may be down, big deer are everywhere and increasing each year. One could encounter a trophy buck anywhere in the region.
Last year, Lyle Sidener, CPW area wildlife manager, told me that Middle Park deer are well above objective and big bucks are evenly distributed across that area. I can personally attest to the large numbers of deer. Sidener told me that GMUs 18, 28, and 181 might be the best there. Middle Park, State Bridge, and unit 44 historically offer better odds for trophy hunters. Units 41, 42, and 421 are always good areas for bucks also.
The southeast region's diverse terrain elevations range from around 4,500 to 14,431 feet. Colorado's legendary monster bucks, both mule deer and whitetail, inhabit the entire southern and southeastern region.
River bottoms with limited forests provide cover, and interspersed agricultural fields provide forage to attract heavy-racked whitetails. Big mule deer also prowl these areas, but they seem to be more attracted to the prairie grass, sage hills or cedar break cliffs and brushy ravines cutting through the rolling hills.
Public land is interspersed within large plots of private land east of I-25. The success rate in most of these SWAs is very high. SWAs are spread throughout the region, giving public land hunters many small to large plots of prime deer habitat. Some of the SWAs do restrict hunting.
The huge, historic, and fascinating Comanche National Grassland is comprised of parcels totaling some 464,000 acres of excellent public hunting access. Deer inhabit pockets throughout the Grassland. The majority of good deer habitat in the Southeast Region, unfortunately, is on private land.
CPW terrestrial biologist Jonathan Reitz advised me that the deer population hurt by the drought of 2012 and some disease is now recovering and that hunts since 2013 have been good. He is seeing more old, mature bucks now and the deer population appears to be increasing. Several SWAs provide limited, but productive hunting opportunities.
The Arkansas, Huerfano, and Purgatoire Rivers and Big Sandy Creek valleys attract many deer. Several SWAs along the Arkansas River Valley offer access to high quality whitetail deer. Both the Sikes and Grenada SWAs have produced well in the past. These SWAs are popular and can be crowded, especially on weekends. To reduce congestion, Reitz recommends hunters plan to hunt the SWAs farthest from high population areas during the week.
GMU's within Las Animas County and Pueblo County have the highest number of Boone and Crockett mule deer entries for the southeast region. Typically, those GMUs closest to the Arkansas River have better potential for trophy whitetail bucks and they provide good public land access. Harvest rates in the area average around 50 percent annually.
Reitz said that the SWAs on the Arkansas River have good populations of whitetails. The John Martin Reservoir area also has mule deer. The grasslands offer good hunting, but deer aren't found everywhere within; rather, they are scattered around in pockets of favored terrain. There are lots of whitetails along the Kansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico border units, including 132 and 146. Some units require several points to draw while most only need 0-2 points. Late rifle seasons generally require more points.
West of I-25, the terrain begins to elevate. Searching hidden pockets high amongst the rugged peaks in GMU 86 may reveal your monster mule deer; however, you will probably find more deer in the lower brushy bottoms. Jamin Grigg, CPW terrestrial biologist, said deer numbers are growing slowly but are a little below objectives in his region. Hunter success has been good. Deer are dispersed from cloud-high timber pockets down the slopes of Colorado's highest peaks across the juniper and pinon hills east of the Collegiate heights.
Although some large bucks may haunt the alpine tundra, more deer will be found lower down in the scrub. Winter comes early in this high Collegiate Peaks area and deer tend to migrate down toward the east side of GMUs 56 and 561, sometimes before snow drives them down. The biologist thinks GMUs 49, 57 and 58 may produce some major hat-racks this year.
For tough hunters, GMUs 82 and 86 in the rugged, high peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Range harbor some really big bucks. However, more deer and probably some big bucks will likely be found down lower in the scrub country along the east edge of the range.
The 2016 harvest was about average in the southwest, and the winter survival rate thus far is high. In most areas, the buck to doe ratio is approaching record levels. Many units are harboring some really big trophy bucks. Joe Lewandowski, CPW Public Information Officer, told me that those who hunt hard should succeed. He believes the key to success is simply hunt slowly on foot and hunt hard all day. Overall, deer counts are very positive in most units.
Joe told me deer numbers and reports of big bucks are increasing in units 77 and 78 around Pagosa Springs. He also mentioned the public lands in the San Luis Valley as prime spots. Last year, Lewandowski told me the triangle from Durango, to Cortez, to Montrose was also inundated with big buck sightings. GMUs 62, 65, 70 and 73 all have 60- to 70-percent harvest numbers and minimal to no preference point requirements.
Chris Parmeter, CPW biologist, last year said the deer population was growing in the Gunnison Valley and was above management objectives north and northeast of Gunnison. However, winter has hammered the Gunnison Valley deer herds and mortality is likely to be high. Deer have moved all the way down to highway 50, where highway mortality has created even more herd depletion.
While hardy hunters will probably have good luck in the rugged, steep units 54 and 55, wildlife officials reported that GMUs 66 and 67 may be better this year.
Despite winter mortality in some key deer GMUs, officials believe hunters can still look forward to a rewarding 2017 hunt. Deer counts show the herds are still viable in most areas and large numbers of trophy bucks are dispersed across nearly all units. I will likely not expend my precious preference points this season as I am trying to get into one of the areas hard hit this winter. I will wait to see how the herds respond over the next couple of years. Since officials believe almost any unit could deliver a trophy buck, I have a good site in mind. It looks like a good deer season is in the offing this year.