Log In

Reset Password
Regional News

Hunting groups quit Colorado Outdoor Partnership, cite lack of focus on wildlife

Partnership was convened to shape conservation and recreation policy. Three groups say the focus has been elsewhere.
A late season elk hunter glasses the sagebrush covered hills with binoculars high above Elk Creek near Gunnison in the fall of 2021. (Dean Krakel/Special to The Colorado Sun)

Three hunting groups resigned from the Colorado Outdoor Partnership this week, citing “serious concerns” about the group’s direction and the ability of Colorado Parks and Wildlife to lead the collaboration.

“Concerns surrounding wildlife and habitat have been increasingly underrepresented, not responded to, and often ignored,” reads the resignation letter sent this week by leaders of the Colorado Outfitters Association, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Coloradans for Responsible Wildlife Management. “And our efforts to revitalize the conversations have not been taken seriously.”

The Colorado Outdoor Partnership was formed in 2016 by CPW and then overhauled in 2020 by Gov. Jared Polis as a vehicle to “meet conservation and recreation challenges head-on through thoughtful planning, strategic investment and engagement with regional and state-level partnerships.”

The partnership includes more than 30 organizations representing outdoor recreation, conservation, hunters and anglers, environmental education, ranching and government. The group works to blend recreation and conservation in a sustainable way that supports economies and quality of life while protecting natural resources.

The resignation of hunting and angling groups from the partnership reveals a growing schism in Colorado’s wildlife community as recreation access takes a more prominent role in resource management discussions.

“If it’s not recreation, it’s DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion.) And if it’s not DEI, it’s wolves. And there is nothing else,” said Dan Gates, a founding member of the partnership and longtime volunteer in Colorado’s wildlife community representing the Coloradans for Responsible Wildlife Management and Colorado Trapper and Predator Hunters Association. “There’s no room for any conversations around wildlife and habitat management. Nothing can be done for wildlife and habitat because there are all these other distractions on this landscape. It’s so frustrating for the sportsmen community.”

The letter, sent by Gates, Jenny Burbey with the Colorado Outfitters Association, Luke Wiedel from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, explained that volunteers “are no longer comfortable serving” after the Colorado Department of Natural Resources last year investigated allegations that Gates displayed racist behavior. The investigation yielded no evidence supporting the claims.

“Our efforts to get information and support from DNR continue to remain unanswered after several requests for transparency,” the letter says.

Luke Wiedel has served several years as a statewide volunteer for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, representing hunters in various matters with CPW. He feels his group’s involvement in the Colorado Outdoor Partnership was to “check off a bunch of boxes … so they can say we had wildlife groups approve our statewide recreational plan.”

“If we are really going to have meaningful and impactful conversations and action revolving around recreation and conservation we need to take a step back and ask ourselves some serious philosophical questions about wildlife and habitat and capacity and impacts,” Wiedel said. “We need to all come to the realization that we all have an impact – hunters and all recreational users – and then we need to decide what we are going to do about that impact.”

The three members of the partnership tried to raise their concerns with Colorado Parks and Wildlife directors and commissioners.

“We got no traction,” Gates said. “I’ve never seen so much dysfunction in an agency. We feel this is just a manipulative process.”

The agency is very busy. After two years of work, CPW is finalizing a controversial plan to introduce wolves to western Colorado by next year. Three of the agency’s commissioners’ terms end in June with three new commissioners taking their place. CPW’s director resigned in November following an offensive utterance at an awards gala last year and the agency is searching for a new leader.

CPW also is working to promote the new Keep Colorado Wild pass as a way to fund state parks and recently asked legislators for $2.2 million in supplemental funding to support its rollout.

The three groups that resigned said volunteer support, wildlife conservation and habitat protection are falling to the wayside as CPW navigates its complicated year.

“We sincerely hope that the conversation surrounding conservation and recreation becomes one of action and impact, perhaps in ways that none of us can imagine,” the resignation letter said. “Colorado and our wildlife need it more urgently than most people realize. And, simply put, our natural resources deserve better.”

A statement from the Department of Natural Resources and CPW noted the agencies’ pride in the demographic and cultural diversity of the Colorado Outdoor Partnership “and its collaborative, consensus-based work.”

“While we are always sorry to see volunteer members leave, this is an opportunity to bring new voices and energy to the CO-OP,” the statement said. “Critical work remains in Colorado to address expanding recreation and the influence on wildlife and our land, water, ecosystems, and communities. The only way to tackle these issues is collectively with honest and open dialogue and respect, even when the conversations are difficult, uncomfortable, or require compromise on an area of interest.”

After that resignation letter landed in the inboxes of CPW officials on Monday, the Colorado Outdoor Partnership held an online meeting the next day to welcome four new regional partners to the group.

At that meeting, Dan Gibbs, the director of the Department of Natural Resources, reiterated his inability to discuss the investigations into Prenzlow and Gates, citing personnel issues and state regulations. Gibbs also said “CPW is really in a transitional change right now,” a transcript of the meeting said.

Gibbs disagreed with the suggestion that CPW is not focused on wildlife.

“We are working so hard on this, but if you really feel like we are not addressing wildlife issues … this is the opportunity where you step up and say hey … really this is the dialogue, this is the opportunity that we can talk about those issues,” Gibbs said.

Western Slope rancher Janie Van Winkle, who is a member of the Colorado Outdoor Partnership, asked Gibbs if CPW was going to make any effort to reengage the three groups that resigned.

Gibbs suggested the departure of the groups could provide opportunities for others to “fill a really important role, just like the three of them did.”

“I’m sure there is a long list of folks that would love to be sitting around the table with you all discussing these really important issues of the nexus between wildlife and conservation and recreation and working collaboratively together,” Gibbs said. “I don’t have any ill will (toward) any of them at all, so I will keep the door open. But I think there are opportunities for new folks too.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, journalist-owned news outlet exploring issues of statewide interest. Sign up for a newsletter and read more at coloradosun.com.