Not your average trophies

Hunters take aim at game other than deer, elk

Hunters can expect a significant physical challenge stalking mountain goats, which spend most of their time at high elevation above timberline. Bill and Ron Velarde had a successful hunt near Breckenridge. Enlarge photo

Ken Velarde/Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Hunters can expect a significant physical challenge stalking mountain goats, which spend most of their time at high elevation above timberline. Bill and Ron Velarde had a successful hunt near Breckenridge.

Editor’s note: This is one of several articles from Colorado Parks and Wildlife to prepare hunters for the fall big-game hunting season in Colorado. For this and more stories, visit the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website at

By Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Deer and elk are the most commonly hunted species in Colorado. But hunters also go to the high country to pursue other magnificent big-game animals: bighorn sheep, mountain goats, bears, moose and mountain lions.

The numbers of these animals in the state are significantly lower than deer and elk, so licenses are few and difficult to get. But those who obtain a license can look forward to a high-quality hunting experience.

Bighorn sheep

The bighorn is perhaps the most recognized and sought after animal in Colorado. The curled horns of the rams display one of the most magnificent characteristics of any wildlife species.

But while the hardy animals live in harsh terrain, bighorns are a fragile species and Colorado wildlife managers are keeping a close watch on them. The population of bighorns is estimated at only 6,900, and the population has dropped slightly in the last few years.

For the 2011 season, Colorado Parks and Wildlife issued only 260 licenses for the entire state. Last season, 213 hunters took a total of 131 animals, including 114 rams and 17 ewes for a 62 percent success rate.

Getting a license is difficult, with most hunters waiting a minimum of five to seven years to draw a tag. Depending on the unit, many hunters have waited more than 10 years for a license.

The preferred habitat of bighorns is steep, rocky slopes with little vegetation.

“They are very challenging to hunt,” says Scott Wait, a senior biologist for the agency.

While not meaning to be discouraging, Wait doesn’t mince words about the realities of hunting sheep. Preseason scouting is essential.

“They are very wary. The stalk is usually long, strenuous and in difficult terrain,” Wait says. “Most hunters must make long shots, often 200 yards or more. So you’ll need high-quality optics, and rifles must be properly sighted in.”

Retrieving an animal, of course, adds to the hunting challenge.

The good news for hunters is that bighorns are most active during the day and follow predictable daily patterns.

Unfortunately for bighorns, their predictability contributes to their fragility. Unlike other big-game species, they do not adapt easily to new areas. They like to stay on their home turf, even when they are pressured by development or other animals – wild and domestic.

When pressured, the animals become stressed and do not reproduce well. Sheep also are susceptible to diseases spread by domestic sheep and goats and wild mountain goats.

All the herds in the state are now being closely monitored.

Colorado also is home to desert bighorn sheep. Statewide, the population of this species is growing, although there are only an estimated 480 animals in the state, all on the western edge of Colorado. Only 10 ram licenses were issued in 2010, and all the hunters were successful.

Mountain goats

The adaptable, hardy mountain goats seem to be able to defy gravity. These snow-white critters inhabit terrain that is even more severe than the haunts of bighorn sheep.

Goats balance on narrow bands of rock on sheer cliffs and eat lichen and small plants. They seem to think nothing of jumping from one precipice to another. Goats also remain at high elevation year-round, enduring brutal winter conditions above timberline at more than 11,000 feet.

Mountain goats were transplanted in Colorado from other states in the 1940s. There still is debate if they were ever native to the state.

Goats are very adaptable and can move long distances to get to new terrain. Unfortunately, they also carry a disease that might infect bighorn sheep. Consequently, wildlife managers work to keep the goats in areas where they’ve long been established and where they don’t interact with bighorns. These areas include the San Juan Mountains near Silverton; the Raggeds Wilderness near Gunnison; in the Collegiate Peaks west of Buena Vista; in the Gore Range in the central mountains; and in the mountains around Georgetown.

The DOW estimates the mountain goat population at 1,965. In 2011, 229 licenses were issued and 167 goats were harvested, an 82 percent success rate.

Those who want to hunt goats should expect to wait five years or more to accumulate enough preference points for a license.

Black bears

After being adversely affected by drought in the early years of the decade, black bears appear to be making a slow comeback in Colorado.

Bears are very dependent on specific types of plants for survival. Adequate rain and snow in most parts of the state during the last few years have helped spur growth of good crops of acorns in scrub oak, serviceberry, chokecherries and a variety of grasses and forbs.

It is estimated that between 16,000 and 18,000 bears live in Colorado. Bears are mostly solitary and reproduce slowly. Sows do not start producing cubs until they are 5 years old and then can only give birth every other year. Cubs often stay with their mothers for up to two years. Bears range generally in size from about 175 pounds and up for a sow to about 300 pounds for a boar. Few bears exceed 350 pounds in Colorado.

Bears live primarily in the range of 6,000 feet to 9,500 feet in elevation in thick oak brush and aspen groves. Population and reproduction vary depending on the availability of their favorite foods – acorns from oak brush, berries, grasses and forbs. When the weather is wet, that’s good news for bears. In drought, fewer bears are born. Most bears are killed by hunters during September when the animals are most active searching for food before they go into hibernation.

The difficulty in obtaining a hunting license depends on the season and the specific game management unit. Bear-only rifle licenses, obtained through the draw, usually require preference points depending on the unit. During the regular big-game deer and elk seasons, a limited number of bear licenses are available over the counter, but a hunter must have a deer or elk license for the same season.

In 2010, just more than 11,000 bear hunters harvested 1,074 bears, a 10 percent success rate. One reason for the low harvest rate is that bears are difficult to hunt because they live primarily in thick brush. Also, after September, their eating slows down and they are more difficult to find. By early November, most bears are curled up for their six-month nap.

Most bears are harvested when the weather is warm, so a successful hunter must attend to the carcass quickly. Remove the hide as fast as possible after the kill and trim away the fat. Then get the meat on ice as soon as possible. In warm weather, meat will spoil quickly.

Anyone who harvests a bear also must bring the carcass to a parks and wildlife office within five days of the kill so the sex and size can be determined and entered into a database. A small tooth – the first premolar – also is being removed so researchers can determine the age of the animal and how many times a sow has given birth to cubs.

Mountain lions

The most elusive big-game animal in Colorado is the mountain lion. Also known as pumas or cougars – they live in areas where there is dense vegetation and often very broken terrain such as canyons and rocky hillsides. Deer are the primary prey for Colorado’s biggest native cat.

The population of lions in the state is estimated to be between 3,000 and 7,000. For the 2011 season, just more than 1,800 licenses were issued and 383 lions were taken by hunters.

Licenses for lions can be purchased over the counter, and the season lasts from November through March. Hunters who obtain licenses must call in every day to check if quotas have been filled in specific game management units.

Most lion hunting occurs when there is snow on the ground. Dogs pick up the scent from tracks and chase the lions into trees. The chase often is long and difficult through challenging terrain.


Moose were introduced to Colorado in the mid-1970s. Moose are solitary and reproduce slowly. It is estimated that about 1,700 moose live in Colorado. They are concentrated primarily in North Park, on the Grand Mesa, in the Taylor Park area, in the upper Rio Grande River drainage, and in the La Garita Mountains south of Gunnison.

Moose licenses are difficult to obtain, and more than 11,000 hunters annually apply for licenses. Only 187 licenses were issued in 2011. A total of 152 animals were taken during the season for an 88 percent success rate.

Mountain lions are the most elusive big-game animal in Colorado with a success rate last season of slightly more than 20 percent. The season runs from November to March, and licenses are available over the counter. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Mountain lions are the most elusive big-game animal in Colorado with a success rate last season of slightly more than 20 percent. The season runs from November to March, and licenses are available over the counter.