Colorado might curtail big-game hunting licenses after hard winter

A coalition of hunters, wildlife advocates and conservationists supports substantial cuts in the number of big-game hunting licenses proposed for northwest Colorado and believes even deeper reductions might be needed to help herds recover from the region’s severe winter.

Reductions of more than 60% in licenses for some species in certain areas were on the table as the Colorado Wildlife Commission met Wednesday in Glenwood Springs.

Deep snows and harsh conditions caused deer, elk, pronghorns and other animals to migrate out of northwest Colorado this winter. State wildlife officials have said many animals starved to death or died when struck by vehicles while foraging for food along roads, Colorado Parks and Wildlife managers have said.

In January, a semitrailer driving east on U.S. 40 near Dinosaur plowed through a group of 35 pronghorns, CPW said. A herd of 19 pronghorns was hit by a pickup a few days later near Craig.

Eleven groups in the Colorado Wildlife Conservation Project wrote in a letter sent Tuesday to the wildlife commission that they “wholeheartedly support the agency’s recommendations on license reductions and believe we have an alarming emergency” related to the long-term sustainability of the herds in northwest Colorado. The coalition suggested temporary reductions in licenses of more than 80% might be necessary to rebuild wildlife populations.

The coalition also said the release of wolves in northwest Colorado as part of the voter-approved mandate to restore the animal to the state should be delayed “until the prey they need is better positioned to deal with an additional predator.”

“Mother Nature bats last, and that’s bad news for Colorado’s big game populations this year,” said Gaspar Perricone, chairman of the wildlife coalition. “Addressing the issue now is the quickest way to recovery of previous populations. A delayed approach only prolongs that timeline.”

What Perricone called “unprecedented” severe conditions included a series of snow storms that pushed the region’s snowpack to 140% of the 30-year normal levels. State wildlife managers said in some spots, more than 2 feet of hard-packed snow kept the wildlife from getting to the food below.

Spokeswoman Rachael Gonzales said in an email that CPW biologists have made several flights over northwest Colorado since late last fall. She said biologists might never know the full extent of the losses.

Before this winter, elk, deer and pronghorn were under stress in parts of northwest Colorado from drought, building in their habitat and expansion of trails and recreation. CPW previously curtailed hunting licenses for female elk because of years of declines in cow-calf ratios: the number of calves per 100 female elk.

While urging the wildlife commission to adopt the aggressive cuts in licenses, the coalition of wildlife organizations acknowledged that the cutbacks will be an economic hit statewide and locally. Hunting and fishing generate roughly $3.25 billion for Colorado’s economy annually and support more than 25,000 full-time jobs statewide, according to the Colorado Wildlife Council.

Revenue from hunting and fishing licenses pays for the majority of CPW’s programs. About  53% of the money for parks and wildlife programs comes from the license fees and passes. Nearly 70% of the money for wildlife programs, including conservation of non-game animals, comes from license fees and passes.

The second-largest source of money for CPW is federal grant revenue, including money from taxes on hunting and fishing gear, boat fuel, archery equipment and ammunition.

Hunting is big business in northwest Colorado, home to some of the country’s largest deer and elk herds. The 2019 Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan said hunting produced $136 million annually for the region’s economy, $50 million in wages and supported 1,488 jobs.

However, wildlife advocates said science has to be the first consideration in management decisions, including the number of hunting licenses issued.

“Conservation of remaining elk, deer and pronghorn populations and restoration of the herds must come first as Colorado Parks and Wildlife adapts its management to deal with this devastating loss in northwest Colorado, even in the face of far-reaching  economic consequences,” Suzanne O’Neill, executive director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation, said in an email.

Perricone said he’s sure some hunters will be frustrated when the license reductions take effect.

“We don’t want to cause undue harm to industries that are built around hunting opportunities, but we can’t hunt what’s not there,” Perricone said. “Our primary focus needs to be on the resource and the recovery of the herd.”

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