Before the pandemic, the future of hunting and conservation seemed dim.
Articles across Colorado and the country documented the decline of hunting and the threat that that posed to conservation as a result of declining revenues from hunting licenses and fees.
The coronavirus pandemic partially reversed that course as interest in hunting grew in Colorado, said Matt Thorpe, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Southwest deputy region manager. But the pandemic has also brought more people outdoors, putting more pressure on wildlife and wildlands.
Amid concerns about public funding and increased strain on wildlife, hunters and hunting groups in Southwest Colorado have been strengthening their conservation efforts. Their work ties into the historic relationship between hunting and conservation, but it also builds on new partnerships and growing engagement.
Beyond conservation revenues, hunters and hunting groups aim to benefit conservation by sharing their knowledge of wildlife and encouraging other user groups to further invest in protecting wildlands.
“There's this idea of giving back, of doing what’s necessary to protect wildlife and wild public lands,” said Dan Parkinson, who is on the board of the Colorado chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a hunting and angling conservation advocacy group. “I see a resurgence in outdoor activism by hunters and anglers, and I'm very encouraged by that.”
Hunting has long had a close relationship with conservation.
Teddy Roosevelt often serves as the figurehead. An avid hunter, he established 150 national forests, 18 national monuments, five national parks and dozens of federal bird reserves and national game preserves across more than 230 million acres of public land, protecting habitats not only for hunting but for wildlife.
Hunters have other figures they trace their conservation values back to, including Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the U.S. Forest Service and a hunter himself, who added more than 100 million acres to national forest protections during his tenure, according to the Forest History Society. Aldo Leopold, a central figure in wildlife ecology who established the wilderness system in the U.S., was a lifelong hunter.
The conservation ethic established by these figures and others guides hunters and hunting groups in Southwest Colorado as they expand their conservation efforts.
“They were out there and they were part of (nature), and I think that’s the big thing why hunters are conservationists,” said Bryan Chapman, southwest region director for the Colorado Bowhunters Association. “Once you’re tied to that on a spiritual level, you really don’t want to lose it.”
This deep connection to the land and to wildlife is what inspires many hunters to participate in conservation. Hunters do not protect animals so they can then have better hunting, but rather because it fits into the broader picture of healthy and functioning ecosystems, Chapman said.
“They want to see the herd survive and they want to see it healthy, but I think more importantly it’s not just the herd survival so that we can go out and hunt them, but so that we are being responsible stewards of that resource,” he said.
For decades, hunting groups such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the National Wild Turkey Federation and newer groups like Backcountry Hunters and Anglers have worked on conservation throughout Southwest Colorado and the state, partnering with CPW to protect wildlife and public lands.
They have fundraised for conservation projects, purchased conservation easements, conducted education campaigns and volunteered for on-the-ground habitat restoration.
After turkey populations dwindled in Colorado in the 20th century, the Colorado chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation partnered with CPW in the 1980s to reintroduce the animals throughout the state. The National Wild Turkey Federation, which aims to conserve wild turkeys and promote turkey hunting, provided CPW with the cardboard boxes needed to transport the birds at no cost, and members of the organization volunteered with the relocation of the birds.
“They’ve always been great allies for us,” Thorpe said.
“There’s so much work to be done, and as Parks and Wildlife we can’t do it alone. That’s why the collaboration with hunting and angling groups (and) their advocacy is critical,” he said.
Colorado’s turkey population has since rebounded to more than 35,000, according to CPW’s website. CPW continues to relocate turkeys around the Durango area as they overpopulate places or pose a problem for landowners, partnering with the National Wild Turkey Federation to move the animals.
Hunting and conservation are inseparable, said Patt Dorsey, director of conservation operations in the Mountain West for the National Wild Turkey Federation.
“Hunters have always historically done it, and we’ll continue to do it into the future,” Dorsey said.
Hunters and hunting groups have strengthened their conservation efforts in Southwest Colorado in the last several years.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation contributed $75,000 to help fund the U.S. Highway 160 wildlife crossing near Pagosa Springs that is set to finish this year.
In 2018, the organization along with the Mule Deer Foundation and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, another hunting and angling advocacy and conservation nonprofit, partnered with CPW, the Colorado Department of Transportation and other groups to establish the Colorado Wildlife and Transportation Alliance.
The alliance aims to expand wildlife infrastructure along Colorado roads, and the coalition is responsible for the development of the U.S. Highway 160 wildlife crossing.
Hunters have also joined in wildlife research and monitoring in the San Juan Mountains.
Parkinson volunteers as an observer for Mountain Studies Institute’s Colorado bighorn sheep monitoring project, recording observations of bighorn sheep and domestic sheep in Southwest Colorado. Started in 2018, the project helps CPW and the U.S. Forest Service better understand how the two interact and make data-driven management decisions to limit the risk of catastrophic disease for bighorns.
The Colorado Bowhunters Association has previously focused much of its conservation work on educational outreach and policy advocacy, but the group is moving toward more field conservation in the region, Chapman said. He has been coordinating with CPW so that Colorado Bowhunters Association volunteers can assist CPW and the Forest Service with fence removal projects to protect wildlife in the San Juan National Forest.
“We’ve got more and more members that understand conservation and understand that somebody needs to do these projects and CPW doesn’t have the staff to do it, so we’re transitioning to boots-on-the-ground (conservation),” he said.
Arguably the most significant development led by hunters has been the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative.
Co-convened in 2019 by the National Wild Turkey Federation and the U.S. Forest Service but supported by other conservation and hunting groups, RMRI plans to restore more than 300,000 acres of public and private lands in Southwest Colorado to reduce wildfire risk and create better habitat for wildlife.
“One of our primary ways that we deliver conservation is through forest management,” Dorsey said. “Turkeys are forest birds. They need big trees to roost in at night, wet meadows with lots of bugs to raise their babies and a forest floor that they can get through to avoid predators. In my mind, they’re like the mascot for a healthy forest.”
These conservation efforts come at an important time as more people recreate in Southwest Colorado, putting pressure on wildlife and the region’s other natural resources.
From 2019 to 2020, visits to national forests nationwide increased by some 18 million, according to the Forest Service’s most recent visitor use survey.
Though the report did not break visitation data down by national forest, Lorena Williams, a spokeswoman for San Juan National Forest, said in December that visitation peaked in 2020 both for San Juan National Forest and the broader Rocky Mountain region.
From 2016 to 2020, more than 32 million people visited national forests in the Rocky Mountain region, which includes Southwest Colorado.
“We’re at a critical juncture if you look at just the growth and development that’s happened,” Thorpe said.
“There’s a huge interest in more recreational opportunities and just more people on the landscape,” he said. “I think it’s critical that we’re very careful about how we grow. Wildlife will be impacted as there’s more development, but can we do it in a way that’s smart where we protect some of our highest quality habitats?”
With their conservation efforts, hunters hope to mitigate some of the consequences of the growth of recreation and development on wildlife.
“You can’t be an effective hunter without also being a conservationist and understanding that we have to be good stewards of our animals, the habitat and keeping public access,” Chapman said.
Hunters and hunting groups impact conservation beyond the direct projects they undertake.
Sportswomen and men are responsible for much of the revenue that supports wildlife conservation in Colorado. The state employs a user-pay system for wildlife conservation, meaning that those who use the natural resources pay for them.
In the 2020-21 fiscal year, 68% of CPW’s revenue for its wildlife programs came from licenses, fees and passes, though the agency does not break down that revenue to differentiate between finishing and hunting licenses and state park entrance passes.
Just 2% of CPW’s wildlife revenues come from the state’s general fund and 1% from state and local grants.
“All the citizens of Colorado and our visitors get to derive the benefit, but really it’s the hunters and anglers who fund most of that conservation work that happens,” Thorpe said.
Some of the benefits hunters have for conservation are less tangible.
Hunters spend hours in the woods watching animals. That time allows them to better understand their behavioral patterns and notice important details that can inform wildlife managers.
With the intimate knowledge of wildlife behavior, hunters can help target conservation so that it’s more effective, say protecting a wildlife corridor where they watch deer or elk move in the fall.
“Because hunters and anglers spend time on land in solitude (and) in quiet, they’re observing things,” Parkinson said. “They see the patterns. They see how things work and the need to maintain what's there.”
When Chapman was hunting during turkey season last spring, he noticed a number of deer calf carcasses that he then reported to CPW so that they could take note of the high mortality rate.
CPW has also required hunters bring in the skulls of the deer they harvested so that the agency can sample them for chronic wasting disease, a fatal neurological disease that affects deer, elk and moose, and pin down the spread of the disease around the state.
“Specifically for bowhunters, you have such a closer tie and a better understanding of the life of that animal and how they're interacting within that environment,” Chapman said.
But while hunters can make a significant difference in conservation, there are still limits to their work.
“The hard part will be as we have more and more people using public lands and maybe a lower percentage of hunters: Can we get other people to help out with that (conservation)?” Dorsey said.
While other conservation groups unrelated to hunting are also making a difference for natural resources in Southwest Colorado, hunting groups tend to be among the most vocal in their support for wildlife, Thorpe said.
“Most people have those values, but not everybody’s willing to step up and say, ‘Hey, this is important to me. This is why I think this should (or) shouldn’t happen,’” Thorpe said.
In strengthening their own conservation efforts, hunters hope it encourages other user groups to expand their conservation work.
“Each user group has a responsibility to think ethically about their activity keeping in mind that (wildlife) is a shared precious resource,” Parkinson said. “I think hunters and anglers have led a lot of this over the years and we need to be welcoming to other groups and encourage constructive dialogue with different user groups.”
As hunters in Southwest Colorado look to lead on conservation, they will also be continuing the legacy of the many hunter-conservationists who came before them.
“It’s kind of like driving a car. You need to look in your rearview mirror every now and then, but you need to keep your eyes on the road in front of you,” Dorsey said. “I think that’s the challenge for sportsmen. We’re really proud of our history and where we’ve come. But if we want to be relevant and see our public lands protected in the future, we’ve got to keep our eyes on the road in front of us.”