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1960-2000: The West Slope Booms
1960-2000: The West Slope Booms
Mule Deer

The decades between the 1960s and 1990s saw the acceleration of previously identified trends, the initiation of state programs designed to build good will with the agricultural sector, the further refinement of wildlife management techniques and the arrival of important new stressors on deer populations.

Several major water projects were developed during the 1960s including the Curecanti Project, which created three major impoundments on the Gunnison River. The Blue Mesa, Morrow Point and Crystal reservoirs inundated some 34 miles of river and associated critical deer winter habitat, severing important migration routes.

In 1961, Operation Respect was initiated to foster mutual respect between landowners and sportsmen. It had the support of the Game and Fish Department, the Colorado Cattleman's Association, the Colorado Wool Growers, the Farm Bureau, the Wildlife Federation and the Izaak Walton Leaque.4 Three years later, the Department joined with the Colorado Wool Growers Association, local livestock groups, the Colorado Department of Agriculture and federal agencies in a large-scale predator control project that tallied 7,000 coyotes killed in a single year.4

In 1963, the first limited license buck deer season was held. Deer harvests continued to set records, with more than 147,000 deer taken in Colorado. In an effort to develop more accurate population estimates, the renamed Colorado Department of Game, Fish and Parks pioneered aerial count techniques to better estimate herd numbers near Kremmling in the Middle Park Basin of north central Colorado in 1967.  Total deer numbers were projected from averages of deer counted on random square miles called "quadrats," the first systematic sampling protocol adopted by the agency. While mark-resight survey protocols have further improved population estimate accuracy, quadrat estimates remain a good method for managers to assess density on large scales. In 1972 the Division's Wildlife Resource Inventory System is developed.


This system was the first comprehensive attempt to map seasonal wildlife ranges in Colorado and is still in use and is updated regularly.

As the country weathered the Middle East oil crisis in the 1970s, energy development arrived on the West Slope in a big way. The BLM leased two 5,120 acre tracts for oil shale development in the Piceance basin in 1973, the same year strip mining of coal was initiated in the Yampa Valley around Oak Creek, Hayden and Craig and in the four corners region of southwestern Colorado. In September 1976, Colorado-Ute Electric Association began operation of a generation plant near Hayden, an event that marked the start of the present-day energy boom.1

In 1972, the National Environmental Policy Act was passed, partially in response to large-scale energy and water development proposals across the West. In 1974, Colorado lawmakers approved the Local Government Land Use Control Act (HB 1034) and the Land Use Act (HB1041), which provided an avenue for local input on development projects.

1975: Computerized license drawing initiated.

Deer-frozen-Gunnison-River-1970sThe severe winter of 1978 -1979 offered the first opportunity to test a pelletized food ration formula developed by researchers from the Division of Wildlife, which had split from Parks in 1973. An aggressive feeding program successfully reduced potentially high winter mortality.

1979: First moose introduced into North Park, Colorado.

1979 last Grizzly bear killed in south San Juan mountains.

In the 1970s and1980s, Colorado became the ski capital of the nation. Breckenridge, Steamboat Springs, Arapahoe Basin and Vail were developed, sparking a second-home construction boom that fundamentally changed the economy of the West Slope and which continues to this day. The rapid expansion of human activity placed significant pressure on wildlife and wildlife habitat.  In 1960, deer, elk and bighorn sheep were abundant in the Gore Valley, where the primary human activity revolved around a single sheep ranch.  Today the "Vail Valley" is home to approximately five thousand people and bustling with year-round residents and tourists, which has reduced the amount of winter range and restricted deer migration routes.  The new recreation economy created a demand for year-round backcountry access, which has negatively impacted desirable wildlife habitat during critical periods of the year.4

In 1980, Colorado's population reached 2.9 million residents. That same year the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) through Wildlife Services authorized $500,000 for predator control work in Colorado. The next year, the Division of Wildlife launched a large predator-control study in the Piceance basin. Researchers documented mule deer fawn mortality rates for four years before initiating coyote control. Two hundred eighteen coyotes were killed over a fifty four square mile area during the following three years, while mortality rate monitoring continued.  Prior to coyote control, an average of 83 percent of fawns did not survive winter. During the period of active coyote control, an average of 76 percent of fawns did not survive winter. Researchers found that decreases in the number of coyote-caused fawn deaths, as a result of coyote control, were largely offset by increases in starvation rates.

1982: Landowner recognition Program initiated to recognize the role landowners play in providing habitat for wildlife.

1983-1984- Another severe winter in 1983-84 prompted the Division to launch the largest winter feeding operation of its kind in the United States.  Tons of the pelletized deer ration were distributed at feeding stations in the Gunnison Valley, Middle Park, North Park, Craig,  Steamboat Springs and the Little Hills research station at a total cost exceeding $4 million.4 Despite supplemental feeding, fawn mortality in the Piceance Basin was estimated at 95 percent, primarily from starvation and predation. In Middle Park that same winter fawns not supplementally fed suffered a 74 percent mortality rate.7  The episode demonstrated the vulnerability of mule deer to severe winter conditions across a range of habitats.

The winter of 1983-84 followed a near-record harvest in 1983, and some hunters began to voice concerns that the lack of mature bucks on the landscape might suppress herd reproduction. In response, the Wildlife Commission instituted antler point restrictions on bucks. Subsequent population estimates showed that the new antler point restrictions did not improve depressed buck numbers, increase adult buck-doe ratios, or result in overall population increases.5

In 1989, the Division launched the Habitat Partnership Program to bring the Division and landowners together in develop plans to alleviate deer and elk damage problems.

In 1989, Colorado hunters set a record elk harvest of 41,276, the largest recorded in any state this century. Meanwhile, the deer harvest registered 79,749.

By 1990, Colorado's deer population was estimated to be over 600,000 deer, but before the end of the decade concern about low numbers of mule deer across the west was once again at the forefront of deer management.