Big-game hunting interest soars beyond Colorado’s capacity9 min read
Soaring interest in Colorado’s big-game hunting seasons — for animals like deer, elk and bear — far outpaces the number of licenses that state wildlife officials have to offer, driving business for outfitters and raking in cash for the state.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife received nearly 218,000 applications last year for deer-hunting licenses, but the agency only had about 102,000 to give, state data shows. For elk, wildlife officials received nearly 238,000 applications for just over 123,000 available licenses.
For moose, the contrast is even starker. The state received more than 53,000 applications for moose hunting licenses, more than 90 times higher than the 592 allotted last year. That’s a 326% increase from the 16,494 moose applications the state saw a decade earlier.
The story’s the same for bear, mountain lion, bighorn sheep and mountain goats, said Joseph Livingston, a spokesman for Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources.
The rising interest is due to a relatively recent change in Colorado’s fee structure and the COVID-19 pandemic. It now costs less to apply for licenses and more people — cooped up during the last few years — are clamoring for the outdoors.
That means increased competition for licenses that already were difficult to come by and larger crowds for areas in the majority of the state that accept over-the-counter licenses, where people can effectively hunt on demand. More people flocking to the sport ultimately translates to slimmer chances for the tens of thousands of hunters competing each year to find — and kill — some of the country’s largest and most spectacular animals.
“It’s a zoo. You show up at the trailhead and you’re gonna count every state (license plate) in the country,” said longtime hunter Dave Carrado, of Durango.
“And you don’t want to get shot. That’s just not personally the experience I’m looking for,” he added with a chuckle.
Hunters who spoke with The Denver Post also expressed concerns that the crowds could overhunt animals, potentially tipping nature’s delicate balance, especially when combined with the impending reintroduction of gray wolves to Colorado’s Western Slope.
Plus, the increasing number of applications for hunting licenses decreases the likelihood that hunters who have been patiently waiting will ever win their turn from the state’s draw system.
“Some people will apply for 30 years and not get a license,” Livingston said of moose hunters.
“It’s hard to find those secret spots anymore”
Hunting long has been a popular sport in Colorado, but interest spiked higher between 2017 and 2018, said Earl Oesterling, owner and operator of Ivory and Antler Outfitters, based out of Rand, east of Steamboat Springs. That’s when state officials restructured the way they charge applicants for big-game licenses.
When someone wants to hunt moose, for example, they must enter into a draw, Livingston explained. If their number is picked, they get to hunt a moose that year. One license allows a hunter to kill — “harvest” is the official term — a single moose. The documents can also dictate geographic boundaries and which gender of the animal the hunter is allowed to take.
The fee system used to require prospective hunters to pay for the entire license upfront just so they could apply, Livingston said. For moose, that’s a $347 fee for Colorado residents and $2,544 for out-of-state hunters. If your number was picked, the state kept the money; if it wasn’t, you’d get a refund.
Now Colorado only requires an annual small-game license ($34), an application fee ($8) and a habitat stamp ($11) to apply for a moose license, Livingston said. Hunters whose numbers are picked then pay the full license fee; those who aren’t selected no longer have to wait to get their money back. With the restructure, applications soared and the state saved millions in administrative costs because it no longer refunds thousands of hunters each year.
Draws, though, aren’t the only way for hunters to get their fill in Colorado. In 80% of the state, eager recreators can purchase over-the-counter tags to hunt, say, bull elk. That policy stands in stark contrast to other states, which more tightly regulate the draws for all hunting. Those over-the-counter tags are still limited to certain areas and seasons (like archery, muzzleloader or rifle) and aren’t available for every type of game (like moose).
“You can show up tomorrow from Los Angeles, get a tag and hunt a bull elk,” said Lisa Thompson, co-founder of Hunt N Divas, an organization that leads hunting trips for women. “That’s unlimited hunting.”
Over the last three years, the state took in an average of $100 million annually in license fees for all game species (including small game, like turkeys), applications and habitat stamps, said Bridget O’Rourke, a spokesperson for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The industry as a whole has a direct economic impact of about $843 million each year and supports nearly 8,000 jobs, according to a 2019 estimate.
Money collected by the state goes, in part, to conservation efforts across the state, O’Rouke said. Projects include funding Colorado’s 19 fisheries — which produce and stock about 90 million fish in the state’s waters each year — as well as wetland improvement work, protecting wildlife for endangered species, restoring sagebrush and removing invasive trees.
Not only did the more-affordable applications draw new hunters to Colorado, Oesterling said, but so did the pandemic.
Russ Lambert, owner and operator of Colorado Outfitters LLC, based north of Steamboat Springs, noticed the spike, too. People felt isolated and rushed to the mountains when they could.
“Hunting is a lot of different things,” Lambert said. “Most people that don’t hunt think it’s just killing an animal. It’s not. It’s the walk in the woods, feet on the ground, being with nature. We have time to get our brains right.”
It can also be a cathartic, healing experience for those dealing with grief.
In 2010, Melissa McGarvin O’Melia’s 12-year-old son Drennen died during a tragic drowning accident at a local swimming pool. For years, the Centennial resident floundered, struggling to find purpose.
But five years ago, her sister convinced her to take part in a women’s hunting trip in Wyoming. The experience connected McGarvin O’Melia with Drennen, who had just gotten his first shotgun before he passed away.
“It was life-changing for me,” she said.
Hunting taught her self-sufficiency and independence. It taught her to push herself out of her comfort zone. Plus, “it was badass,” McGarvin O’Melia said with a laugh.
“I want my boys to see me as someone who is a really strong woman, a loving mother, a loving wife — but also that I can take care of them if they need it,” she said.
For younger Coloradans like Sloane Smith, hunting can be a coming-of-age experience.
The seventh-grader from Severance remembers as a young girl bringing her Barbies out to the hunting stand, where she’d watch her family take down ducks in southern Arkansas.
Three years ago, she harvested her first white-tail deer.
“My mom got so excited she cried in the stand,” Smith said. “She was so proud of me.”
The surge in hunting, though, comes with a cost.
Less than a decade ago, longtime hunter Chad Hepp said he felt as though he had the forests to himself. As more and more people flocked to Colorado, he switched from hunting with a rifle to a bow to avoid the crowds. But archery seasons soon filled, too.
“Now it seems like every trailhead or every pullout on a Forest Service road, there’s a truck parked,” said Hepp, of Longmont. “It’s hard to find those secret spots anymore.”
The increasing interest isn’t limited to hunting, either. Fishing, hiking, gardening and more all saw huge boosts during the pandemic.
Plus, more people are taking an interest in where their food is coming from, Lambert said.
“A lot of us are figuring out that a lot of the food we eat these days is just not that healthy,” Lambert said. “I never buy a steak at a store. If you treat your meat right from when that animal hits the ground, then you’ve got something better than anything you can get at the market.”
Cooking wild game is how Rikki Folger makes her living.
The 29-year-old chef wanted to be closer to her food — and the sight of empty shelves during the early months of the pandemic spurred the California native to go out and get it herself. Now she runs the kitchen of a hunting lodge in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area north of Glenwood Springs, whipping up venison gyoza and venison fried rice for hunters trekking into the northern Colorado mountains.
“It’s just such a unique experience,” said Folger, who only got into hunting in 2021. “It really makes you appreciate your food so much more because you worked your butt off to get it.”
Finding the balance
While more hunters are looking to Colorado for their next adventure, state wildlife officials must still maintain a delicate balance among the animal populations. They closely track the animals to determine how many licenses to issue, said O’Rouke of Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The aim is to keep the numbers in proportion to the amount of food available throughout the state.
“Hunters can fill their freezers and feed their families while keeping game populations to an ideal level consistent with habitat availability,” O’Rouke said.
Opinions vary on whether state officials find that appropriate balance.
Delia Malone, a Western Slope ecologist, said the state balances herds too much with the economy in mind, rather than the environment.
“This is a very circular process where hunting license revenue is used to ‘manage’ large ungulates to grow the herds for more hunters and make more money for CPW so they can do it all over again,” Malone said.
Wildlife officials defer too much to ranchers as well, who typically want herds managed in a way that preserves grazing grounds for their cattle, Malone added.
“Hunting is not conservation,” said Malone, part of Colorado State University’s Colorado Natural Heritage Program. “Hunting is hunting.”
While natural predators typically take elderly, very young, sick or weak animals, leaving behind the strong and healthy, hunters do the opposite, Malone said. They target animals in their prime, leaving behind the others.
There’s logic to that distinction, said Tom Hobbs, a professor in CSU’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability. But the realities on the ground must be acknowledged.
Humans certainly diminished the number of natural predators across the West, Hobbs said. And in their absence, ungulates like deer and elk can multiply rapidly, their grazing habits devastating entire ecosystems.
“There’s absolutely no question that populations of large herbivores, if left unchecked, will have very adverse effects on the environment,” Hobbs said.
Wildlife managers have a difficult job of finding the balance between animals and the people now living in Colorado, Hobbs said. And they’ve managed to keep herd sizes relatively stable.
Concerns of overhunting are likely overblown, Hobbs said. Because despite an increasing number of applications for hunting licenses, the number of animals actually killed each year, particularly females, has remained mostly stable.
“The system that’s been in place has worked relatively well,” Hobbs said. “Could it be improved? Probably.”
Malone suggested that state officials should focus more on wildlife restoration. Improving habitat would provide more food for ungulates like elk and deer and the improving health of their herds would follow, benefiting the animals themselves, the environment and, yes, the hunters, too.
The few million dollars state officials are dedicating to those restoration projects doesn’t cut it, Malone said.
“That’s a drop in the bucket,” she said. “It’s not nearly enough.”
At the same time, the state should stop issuing licenses for predators like bears and mountain lions, Malone said. Those predators are an important part of the ecological balance, needed to cull the weak and elderly animals from their herds, she said.
There’s “reasonable evidence, not perfect evidence” to support hunting predators, Hobbs said. Without a regulated system in place to allow for the hunting of bears and mountain lions there could be a spike in poaching, he said.
Colorado is largely missing one major predator, too: gray wolves. That is, until later this year, when state officials will begin to reintroduce them to the Western Slope, releasing up to 50 of them over the next three to five years.
Hepp, the hunter from Longmont, expressed concern that the wolves will further diminish elk herds, a common refrain from hunters and outfitters. Ranchers also fear that the predators, once plentiful in Colorado, also will target their cattle, which already has happened with the few wolves that recently migrated into the state on their own.
But Malone said hunters should embrace the wolves. Sure, they’ll thin the herds at first, but since they target the elderly and weak, the elk that survive will be more robust. This will, in turn, improve the health of herds across the Western Slope, which is what ecologists have noticed in the northern Rocky Mountains, where wolf populations are now more robust, she said.
Healthier herds, Malone noted, make for better hunting trophies, too.
“Wolves and cougars are a hunter’s best friend,” she said.
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