Cameras could offer snapshot of bison migration in state | Western Colorado

Dozens of times over the past decade, wild bison living in Utah’s Book Cliffs have crossed a known-to-man demarcation and transitioned from being a big-game species huntable only with a permit in the Beehive state to live and die in the West. Colorado.

There are no regulations governing or restricting bison hunting here, and people could, and did, kill these bison for free.

It’s thanks to what the nonprofit group Grasslands Unlimited says is a regulatory loophole in the state under which Colorado Parks and Wildlife classifies bison only as livestock, rather than both livestock and a species. big game, which means it is not under the jurisdiction of the agency.

“They cross this invisible border and suddenly they go from wild animals to livestock without ever realizing it, and then we are powerless to protect them,” said Trevor Pellerite, president of the group.

Grasslands Unlimited hopes to change that. But in March, the Parks and Wildlife Commission rejected his request to take immediate action to protect the animals from unregulated hunting, citing only anecdotal reports that it was happening. Agency staff argued that the change in regulations has not been shown to be warranted, questioning how many bison have dispersed into the state from Utah and whether there is a significant problem. that the agency should devote to solving some of its limited resources.

But agency director Dan Prenzlow, who was later placed on administrative leave following allegations he made a racist comment at a conference, pledged in March to ask agency staff to meet with Pellerite and see if a problem exists.

“He said the agency is open to some sort of ongoing discussion about what the state can do to restore the bison and what can and should be done to change the regulations,” Pellerite said. “But it certainly wasn’t the kind of move from their side that we were hoping to see.”

As a result, the group decided to take their own initiative by hiring a 2022 University Colorado Mesa graduate, Dayna Leonard, to set up camera traps this summer to get a better idea of ​​how much the bison are getting. present in Colorado from Utah, making them vulnerable to hunting without a license.

Pellerite said Parks and Wildlife has indicated this is the only avenue for Grasslands Unlimited to pursue the matter further, as the agency is unable to undertake this type of research.

“We didn’t want to let the project fizzle out and kind of die, so we took it upon ourselves to do that,” he said.

Leonard, who was born and raised on the West Slope and graduated with a degree in biology, said in an email: “This research is in line with my professional interests and I hope to discover that there are bison crossing Colorado and that this project will provide the state with enough information to create a game management plan to preserve this herd crossing Colorado from Utah…or add another species of game to the list, thus offering more opportunities to hunters.It is also an opportunity for me to acquire more experience in the field.

Meanwhile, a northwest Colorado parks and wildlife official confirmed in a recent interview that there is some truth behind anecdotal reports of Utah bison being hunted as they pass through Colorado.

“We know of several of them that have been taken in the last, I’ll say eight to 10 years,” said Bill de Vergie, the area wildlife manager for the Zone 6 agency, who hosts the Meeker/Rangely/Craig in far northwest Colorado.

He said local wildlife officials know of a dozen or more such cases during that time, and while it’s hard to know how many in total were harvested, based on the percentage they know , it is probably reasonable to estimate that 20 to 30 were taken. absolutely.

“These bison have been drifting in Colorado for a long time; not many, just little little groups at a time,” he said.

He said that in the Rangely area, several people pay attention to bison, and when they have the opportunity to hunt bison, they take advantage of what he noted is not an illegal activity.

“Obviously they use (the bison) for food. They consume them, they don’t waste them,” he said.

He said parks and wildlife staff hear of cases of bison being hunted by word of mouth in small local communities, or see a harvested bison driving through town in a vehicle, or hear about it at a processing plant. of game.

He said some local parks and wildlife workers have also seen the animals in the wild.

Jay Purkey, who owns a game handling facility in Meeker, doesn’t think many bison cross the state line.

“I really don’t think there would be enough to declare them a (hunting) season,” he said.

Purkey said, “We haven’t (processed) a bison here in over 10 years. If they kill them, they don’t bring them here.

He recalls treating a buffalo hunted in Piceance Basin in western Colorado more than a decade ago that had an ear tag and was thought to have probably come out of Utah. . His facility also treated another bison who was shot by a rancher after escaping from a local bison ranch.

Pellerite and de Vergie spoke about the matter, and parks and wildlife spokesman Travis Duncan said the agency was waiting for better information and data from Pellerite before further action was taken.

Pellerite said the area where the bison could be found is huge and there’s no guarantee of getting pictures of them if only a small handful of animals are involved, “but we’re going to do what we can”.

He said the effort is focused on three valleys where parks and wildlife officials believe the majority of the Book Cliffs bison migration between Utah and Colorado occurs. Colorado State University provided spare cameras for the effort, Pellerite said.

Leonard said she had deployed 11 cameras so far and the job was to wait about three weeks after deployment and then change the batteries and check the memory cards. She also cited the large size of the affected area as a challenge, and said the rain running off in the streams created obstacles to accessing the camera traps.

“It will be a long project that will give me time to adjust the locations if necessary,” she said.

Leonard said she got photos from two cameras and hasn’t located any bison so far. But she thinks that might change as she deploys more cameras and the seasons change. “One thing about studying is waiting and seeing what happens,” she said.

De Vergie said that for a while it looked like a herd of bison would come through Colorado in mid-summer, perhaps consisting of a few cows and calves, and maybe a herd of bulls would come through. autumn. But he said recently he hadn’t heard of so many spotted people.

He thinks it may be related to the drought, reflecting the suffering forage and rangeland conditions in the region.

“If they show up, maybe they won’t stay because maybe they won’t find what they need, I don’t know,” he said.

So far, parks and wildlife staff have been worried in part about taking on the task of developing a bison management plan if the agency designates the animal as a big game species, at a when it comes to things like restoring wolves, introducing a new state park pass program, and exploring wolverine reintroduction.

The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association has also opposed Grasslands Unlimited’s efforts to manage bison as a game species, in part fearing that they may pose risks to livestock due to hybridization and transmission of diseases. At the March meeting, Parks and Wildlife Commissioner Duke Phillips, a rancher who raises bison, said bison associations also pushed for denial, but one association supported further exploration of the issue through a process with stakeholders.

Pellerite said his group is not currently seeking to introduce bison, but rather is seeking limited action to address the problem of animals coming from Utah that would not require much immediate active management by Parks and Wildlife.

Parks and Wildlife Commissioner Jay Tutchton thinks having bison roaming the state as a huntable big game species “would be wonderful for Colorado,” and people would pay a lot of money. money to be able to hunt them. He agrees with Pellerite that hunting bison without a license is a problem that should be addressed.

“It breeds a lack of respect for the hunting community and for the hunt to do it in an anarchic way,” he said. “There are no regulations. A bison could come from Utah and get shot or 50 could walk in and get shot. There is nothing that determines this except chance. … It’s a very negligent way to deal with wildlife in my mind,” Tutchton said.

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