At Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Southwest Region Sportsperson’s Caucus, the public agency outlined some of the discussions and debates that will shape the future of hunting in Southwest Colorado.
The virtual meeting Monday brought together wildlife officials, caucus representatives and hunters in Southwest Colorado to talk about CPW’s efforts as the agency reconsiders its approach to hunting amid growing challenges. As hunting demand and Colorado’s population increase, and widespread human impacts take a toll on wildlife, CPW and hunters look to create a sustainable path forward for the sport in which regulations are simplified and the hunting experience improved, while also maintaining the sound wildlife conservation on which both rely.
“With these issues – a growing human population, more interest in limited licenses, fewer animals than we might have had 20 years ago – all of these things are affecting supply and demand,” said Brandon Diamond, CPW Area 16 wildlife manager in Gunnison, in an interview. “This issue (of supply and demand) has sort of been simmering to a boil for quite a while now over several decades.”
During the caucus, Diamond led a presentation about CPW’s decision to review and potentially revise its hunting rules. It’s a process the agency undertakes infrequently, but the yearlong effort was precipitated by an update known as CPW’s “five-year season structure planning process,” which sets hunting season dates and broad policies for the next five years, and long-brewing concerns about Colorado’s hunting system.
CPW began the work in November 2021 with staff focus groups and stakeholder input.
Staff member discussions aligned with surveys from last year that showed the two most pressing issues for hunters were license allocation and the agency’s preference point system, Diamond said during the meeting.
License allocation dictates the split of licenses between residents and nonresidents. Preference points underpin that system, determining which permits hunters can obtain.
For many of Colorado’s hunts, CPW issues a limited number of licenses to protect wildlife populations. License allocation depends on each species, with nonresidents unable to obtain more than 10% of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, moose or mountain goat licenses, for example.
Many western states employ the system, but Colorado, which is known for its hunting, especially elk and mule deer, is more liberal than many other states when it comes to nonresident licenses, Diamond said.
“Colorado does certainly provide a significant amount of opportunity for nonresident hunters, particularly with elk,” he said.
For hunters in Colorado and CPW, the question is: How many licenses should out-of-state hunters be allowed to obtain?
Luke Kline, Southwest Colorado regional director for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a sportsperson and conservation advocacy group, has noticed more hunters from other states visiting Southwest Colorado to hunt.
“We’re a hub for nonresident hunters because we’re closer to those state borders of Texas, Oklahoma and (others) where people can come from outside the state and enjoy the hunting opportunity here in Colorado, especially in the southwest,” he said.
That can translate to more hunters on the land.
“In Southwest Colorado, there has definitely been a little more crowding,” Kline said. “… Generally, you do see a lot more people in the woods than you used to during hunting season.”
The second issue important to hunters and CPW is the preference point system and a phenomenon noted as “preference point creep.”
For limited licenses, hunters apply and enter a draw. When hunters apply, they do so by selecting a number of variables, including species, manner of take (for example, archery versus rifle) and location.
A hunter earns a preference point when they apply for a license but do not draw their first choice. Preference points accumulate and increase a hunter’s odds of drawing a license when they apply again.
Preference point creep is the phenomenon by which the accumulation of preference points among hunters makes it more challenging to secure a license. The preference point system essentially comes down to supply and demand: the more people want to go on a hunt, the more preference points it requires.
During the caucus, Diamond gave the example of an archery elk license in one area of Colorado that required eight preference points for a hunter to draw a license in 2015 that now requires 11 points in 2021.
“It’s increasing demand for licenses resulting in a higher preference point requirement,” he said.
Bad winter seasons or poor yearly reproduction can reduce wildlife populations and the number of hunting licenses, contributing to preference point creep.
But a growing problem is the state’s booming hunting scene and growing population.
Kline said Backcountry Hunters and Anglers has seen an uptick in Colorado membership in recent years as the state has grown and hunting in Colorado, both from resident and nonresident hunters, has increased in popularity.
During the last cycle, CPW received more than 700,000 applications from hunters for limited licenses, Diamond said Monday.
“There definitely appears to be an increasing demand for limited hunting opportunities,” he said in an interview. “That supply and demand relationship creates lots of passionate feelings and opinions on how we should allocate those licenses.”
Roger Cesario, one of two CPW caucus delegates for Southwest Colorado, expressed concern during the meeting about projections that show the state’s population continuing to grow.
“How does that work with license allocations?” he asked. “There’s an unlimited pressure on a limited resource.”
As hunters and CPW wrestle with these issues, they also must consider the effects of outdoor recreation, development and other land uses that increasingly affect wildlife populations and ultimately hunting.
“The big picture is the declining health and population numbers of not only big game, but small game and other animals due to recreation in general. Habitat loss is (another) big one,” Kline said. “… With this influx of people moving here, we've seen an increase in use, an increase in demand for more trails and then year-round recreation. Those are all taking a toll on our wildlife.”
The cumulative effects of recreation, development and hunting challenge CPW as the agency manages these multiple uses with its mandate to conserve wildlife. Often, it is hunters that most directly see this delicate balance as CPW and its hunting regulations wax and wane to accommodate changing populations.
“We’re all vying for a very limited and sometimes reduced resource. It’s something that CPW deals with every day across the state,” Diamond said. “The bottom line is that Colorado is very complex these days, even compared to 10 and 20 years ago, and we do work to manage wildlife in a complex environment.
“To sum it up: There’s a lot of people in Colorado, and a lot of people want to do everything, everywhere, all the time in terms of recreation and land use,” he said. “At the end of the day, what that can result in is a diminished carrying capacity for our wildlife populations.”
Carrying capacity, which is a measure of how many animals the land can support, is an existential metric for hunting. If habitat loss continues and more human activity disrupts wildlife, the carrying capacities of Colorado’s landscapes will shrink. Reduced carrying capacities would decrease license allocation and hunting opportunities across the state.
CPW and hunters in Southwest Colorado are already beginning to consider how this affects hunting now and in the future.
Kline said hunters are more than willing to adjust licensing and their own use of wildlife resources if it means the long-term sustainability of animal populations. Mia Anstine, the second CPW caucus delegate for Southwest Colorado, shared the same sentiment.
“It’s bigger than just how many licenses we can allocate,” Anstine said during the caucus. “We have to figure out how to sustain the wildlife population. I’ll give up a hunting license if it means we can still have elk on the ground.”
In the coming weeks, CPW will send out its big-game attitude survey to a random sample 6,000 hunters seeking their input about issues such as license allocation and the preference point system. The last time the agency sent out the survey was in 2014, Diamond said.
The data CPW collects from the survey, along with public focus groups, stakeholder workshops and public meetings, will help the agency formulate alternatives to the state’s current hunting system by the end of this year.
As the agency and hunters attempt to simplify complex rules while considering the effects of population growth, booming popularity and recreation, any new regulation system will ultimately rely on the decadeslong partnership between hunting and conservation.
“Conserving wildlife habitat is the foundation on which our tremendous wildlife resources are built upon,” Diamond said. “If we continue to lose habitat and don’t continue to have these honest discussions about habitat protection, we just simply are not going to be able to maintain the robust wildlife populations that we all have come to love and (that) contribute to our quality of life to such a great extent.”