2009 Colorado Deer Forecast

2009 Colorado Deer Forecast

Winter mortality took its toll in the southwest region, but the season looks good for most areas of the Centennial State. (September 2009)

A couple of northwestern mule deer search for food after a heavy snow. Herds in the northwest area are healthy and offer hunters an excellent opportunity to fill tags.
Photo by Lex Nichols.

If you pause and listen closely, you can hear it. The sage-dappled plains and alpine peaks of Colorado are calling, begging you to load the 4x4 and burn up the blacktop. Waiting are endless acres of public ground abounding with those majestic big-eared mulies and heavy-horned whitetails we all long to chase.

The great thing about the Centennial State is the buffet of options it provides:

  • A booming population of more than 500,000 deer

  • Trophy units

  • Plenty of tags

  • An array of seasons, and

  • An ever-growing population of whitetails.

The only logical thing to do is grab the weapon of your choice and dig in.

Though Old Man Winter blew in wicked storms, and severe drought plagued areas of the state in past years, superb management by the Colorado Division of Wildlife has helped keep the 2009 outlook an optimistic one.

According to Trent Verquer, a Colorado Division of Wildlife biologist for the southeastern region, recent flight surveys showed a positive trend has continued through 2009.

"I saw big, mature deer everywhere I flew!" said Verquer. He spent most of his air time on the Arkansas River between the town of Fowler and the Kansas line, the lower part of the Apishipa River, the Big Sandy, and sections of the Purgatoire River.

Verquer told Rocky Mountain Game & Fish that the buck-to-doe ratio in units 122, 125, 126, 127, 130, 132, 137, 138, 139 and 146, which boast a population of around 4,200 deer, was way above the overall long-term goal of 43:100.

"My recent counts show a 51:100 buck-to-doe ratio, which is extremely good news from a management and a hunting standpoint," said Verquer.

The only downside is that fawn reproduction was down a bit, 52:100, which stems from years of drought.

Verquer also manages units 143, 144 and 145, where a healthy mix of both whitetail and mule deer roam. Though no surveys were conducted in these units in 2009, Verquer had good things to say about them.

"There are some bomber mulies in this area, and the Cimarron River, which runs through Unit 145, is one of the premier whitetail spots in the state. We see a lot of those western Kansas bruisers following this river across the border," he said.

The downfall to the eastern plains has always been public access. There are state wildlife areas, but the bulk of eastern dirt is private and very difficult to get on. To remedy this, the CDOW implemented the Big Game Access Program, which is now in its third year as a trial program.

The state has leased more than 100,000 private acres through the program. "This has really opened up some quality deer hunting, and we are seeing some great success rates and some quality animals taken," said Verquer. "Most hunters I have spoken with are extremely happy with the program, and so are the ranchers."

Hunters will also find excellent buck-to-doe ratios and plenty of mule deer and whitetails in GMUs 128, 129 and 135. Most of Unit 129 is along the Arkansas River bottom and is home to some colossal whitetails. Units 128 and 135 are in the cedar-sage country and have a few small creeks sneaking across their landscape. Public land abounds in these two units, thanks to the 435,000-acre Comanche National Grasslands.

Overall, the forecast for the southeast seems to be low winter mortality, a strong population, excellent ratios, and some monster bucks. All this makes it awfully hard to ignore.

Hunters seeking an adventure in this region have plenty of things working in their favor. But they will also encounter some issues that could hinder their hunt. Let's look at the positive first.

In northern Larimer County (GMUs 7, 8, 9, 19 and 191), hunters will have plenty of room to roam in the nearly 2-million-acre Roosevelt and Arapahoe national forests and the 9,238-acre Cache La Poudre Wilderness. There has also been a trend of leftover buck tags because many hunters overlook these GMUs, making them opportunity-rich areas. Fewer hunters also mean less pressure and less competition.

Now let's take a look at the negative.

According to CDOW biologist Mark Vieira, the Poudre-Red Feather Deer Herd isn't where the CDOW would like to see it in terms of overall population.

"We have a new management plan that is aimed at increasing the deer herd, which after the 2008 hunt was estimated around 7,000 animals. We plan to increase the herd to between 10,000 and 12,000 animals," said Vieira.

Another issue is that hunters aren't seeing or harvesting many trophy animals. But Viera said they are focused on improving this with the new management plan as well.

A post-hunt flight was not conducted in these units in 2009, so an accurate buck-to-doe ratio was not available. However last year it was 29:100, and Vieira doesn't anticipate much of a change in those numbers.

"We had a slightly lower harvest in 2008 partly due to the dry conditions, which made the ground less than adequate for stalking. We also didn't see a winter mortality rate outside of the ordinary, so our buck-to-doe ratio shouldn't have been affected."

Vieira also recommended that hunters look to the upland units north of the South Platte River (87, 88, 89, 90 and 95), along with those units that border the South Platte.

The Pawnee National Grasslands offer good mule deer populations, and he is seeing some great whitetails taken along the South Platte. The Platte also has several large public tracts.

Many hunters stray from areas of the Front Range because of the CWD scare, but prospective hunters to this area need to know that many CWD cases come from deer harvested on private tracts. Current CDOW statistics show GMU 20 as the highest CWD unit in the state. Other Front Range units, like 29 and 38, had nearly a 3 percent average.

Snow has plagued the so

uthwest for two consecutive winters. It's wreaked havoc on the deer in this corner of the state.

Andy Holland, a CDOW biologist for the southwestern region, said that the brutal storms of 2007-08 left some deer damage in their wake.

"Mortality will be an issue across most of western Colorado," said Holland. "But specifically here in the southwest, we are seeing modest declines in deer numbers.

"Another concern is that we were slammed with snow again in 2008-09, meaning we will most likely take another hit."

Holland went on to mention that buck-to-doe ratios took a slight dip, but hunters should still see a healthy mix during the 2009 season.

"Our buck-to-doe ratio is currently around 28 bucks to 100 does, which is still good from a management standpoint, but the dip is something hunters need to be aware of," said Holland.

It's important to remember that bucks take the biggest hit when Mother Nature gets angry. Big, mature battlers are coming off an intense rut and are plumb worn out. Replacing depleted nutrients and increasing fat supply is their primary concern. But when a thick blanket of snow is covering primary food sources, many bucks fall to the adverse conditions.

This is one reason Holland and his crews are seeing only about eight mature bucks to every 100 does. Fawns are also very susceptible to winter conditions, and being that roughly half of all fawns are males leads to another decrease in buck numbers.

"We are seeing lower yearling buck-to-doe ratios as well, which means these rough winter conditions will affect our future. But hunters defiantly don't want to count out this region of the state in 2009," Holland said. "We still have a lot of deer, and our herd populations are stable."

In GMUs 70, 71 and 711, which make up the Groundhog Disappointment Herd, an estimated 24,000 animals can be found. The Cortez and Hermosa Herds in units 72, 73, 74 and 741 harbor around 12,500 animals. Units 75, 77, 78, 751 and 771 are home to the San Juan Herd, and have a resident population of about 24,000.

The San Juan and Rio Grande national forests, along with wilderness areas like the Lizard Head and Weminuche, offer hunters throngs of public access. However, after those first snowstorms, many deer head for the lowlands where private property abounds. Arrange your hunt accordingly.

The southwest isn't necessarily a trophy haven, but each year many Pope and Young, and Boone and Crockett deer are harvested around the mountain towns of Durango, Cortez and Pagosa Springs.

There will be some early-season damage-doe permits issued in units 72 and 711 in 2009. Other than that, Holland said he did not expect any major changes to the management of the deer herds in the southwest, and hunters can expect a good-to-average forecast in 2009.

The mountain town of Gunnison, better known as Colorado's outdoor hub, was slammed with harsh winter weather in 2007-08, as was much of the Western Slope.

Grafton Singer, a resident of Gunnison, and one of the most hardcore deer hunters I know, spends countless days scouting and hunting GMUs 54, 55, 66 and 67.

"In my opinion, the population took a huge hit," said Singer. "In years past, whether I was hunting or just doing some pre-season glassing, it wasn't uncommon to see 100-plus deer a day with 15 to 20 of them being shooters. This past season it was difficult at times just to find deer, let alone track down a trophy."

Though this is bad news it could have been a lot worse. The CDOW and area volunteers saved the lives of countless mule deer after the harsh blizzards of 2007-08 by setting up feeding programs. Volunteers logged 7,608 hours while working around the clock with CDOW officials. Their exhausting efforts saved the lives of many deer and helped ensure a population rebound in these units.

Rich in deer hunting lore, the northwest looks to be a productive region in 2009. The biggest attractions to this scenic country are the diversity of landscapes and the plethora of hunting options. Semi-arid sagebrush country gives way to mesas and plateaus, which are dwarfed by snow-capped peaks.

GMUs, like 11, 12, 13, 22, 23, 24, 131, 211 and 231, offer plenty of tags. This is the home of the White River Herd. At 70,000 animals, it's Colorado's largest.

According to Gary Collard, a longtime resident of the northwest, these units may be the best in the state when it comes to punching a tag.

"Don't get me wrong," Collard said, "there are plenty of trophies in these units, but they are more noted for their strong population.

"There is loads of public ground and hunters who access these areas are going to see deer. If you want some meat for the table or are looking for a place to take a first-time hunter, you can't go wrong in these units."

Other units, like GMUs 21 and 30, are considered trophy units and take several points to draw

According to Randy Hampton, public information officer at the CDOW's Grand Junction office, those hunters who drew these units in 2009, or are planning a hunt here in the future, should be in for some good fortune.

"The Book Cliffs Herd has a solid population of 12,000, which is at the high-end of our long-term objective. Hunters will also find a solid 50:100 buck-to-doe ratio, and if they hunt these rugged units hard they should take down a beautiful trophy," Hampton said.

There is also some excellent opportunity on the world's largest flattop mountain, better known as the Grand Mesa. In units 41, 42 and 421, you'll find the North Grand Mesa Herd, which boasts a 30,000 post-2008 hunt population and a 27:100 buck-to-doe ratio.

Hampton said the herd is in excellent condition and is at the top end of the CDOW's population and buck-to-doe ratio set for those units.

"The Grand Mesa National Forest draws a lot of attention because of all the public access. There are also a lot of four-wheel-drive roads and hard-to-get-to areas accommodating different hunting interests," Hampton said.

The South Grand Mesa Herd is right on the CDOW objective of 11,000 animals and has a 25:100 buck-to-doe ratio. It provides some fantastic hunting opportunities.

"Like the North Herd, the South Herd is doing wonderful from a management standpoint as well, and we saw some great bucks taken from the area in 2008," Hampton. "GMUs 52, 411 and 521 offer plentiful public-land opportunities, including the 64,992-acre Raggeds Wilderness Area," Hampton said.

Hampton wanted hunters to know that

rumors circulating about a massive die-off in the White River Herd due to severe winter conditions are not true.

"Winter flights didn't show any winter mortality above normal. Harvest rates were down in 2008, which kicked off many rumors about the condition of the herd. But hunters need to keep in mind that we had a really wet year and area biologists concluded that the deer were more spread out than normal," Hampton said.

Another important message from Hampton was centered on the topic of the leftover licenses that are typically available in many northwest GMUs.

"We had a lot of shocked hunters when the leftover lists came out," he said. "This was due to the fact that we did reduce licenses in many units, and this trend is expected to continue in the coming years."

The Centennial States 2009 outlook is somewhat mixed. Some regions saw declines in population and buck-to-doe ratios, while others remained at or above their long-term objective.

Regardless of what region you are hunting this year, there are plenty of deer out there. Yes, you may have to check out a more-distant drainage or climb a few more peaks this season to fill the freezer, but that's what hunting is all about: rising to the challenges and coming out successful.

Have a great season!

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