Step Up To The Plate

Specialty license plates are like fancier, larger bumper stickers, only ones that also raise money for the cause, not just promote it.
Colorado Wildlife Sporting License Plate
Colorado Wildlife Sporting License Plate

Please excuse Michael Mauro if you catch him staring at your rear bumper. Mauro has enjoyed some extra-long looks at your car’s license plate (what else did you think we meant?) ever since Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) issued its own designer license plate. That’s because he took the photos of the elk the agency used on the plate. 

“It’s pretty cool, man,” said Mauro, who specializes in stock wildlife photography. “I can’t drive anywhere without seeing them.”

That’s partly because Mauro’s looking for them, but it’s also because the plates are a hit. The state’s sold nearly 20,000 plates since they were issued in 2016. That’s an amazing number considering the state requires 3,000 signatures from residents saying they would buy them as a reassurance they won’t go to waste, and the public can choose a plate to support many other popular causes, including adopting a shelter pet, Colorado’s national and state parks, breast cancer, Broncos charities and the Colorado Rockies. Yet the Wildlife Sporting plates are in the top 10 of all-time sales. 

These speciality plates cost $25 a year to renew. Many of the earlier Colorado specialty plates had one-time payments, which is why they turned out to be not very good fundraising tools. This year, the first funds from the CPW plate sales were issued, provided $450,000 to the agency that it used for its Fishing is Fun program and funding shooting ranges. That money should keep rolling in, as residents have to renew their plates every year.

Mauro took the photos at Horseshoe Park in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s one of his best spots to photograph in the fall because if the elk cross over a hill just as the sun’s rising, he gets a beautiful silhouette of the animals. That’s right: The elk used on the plate are actual photos, not photoshopped cutouts of an elk’s shadow. 

ELk photo
Elk silhouette. Photo by © Michael Mauro.

“It’s hard to get the right spot,” Mauro said. “But that spot can be great if you get it right.”

The plate was a response to the outdoor public’s outcry against officials cracking down on recreational shooting, in addition to finding a funding source for the cash-strapped Colorado Parks and Wildlife organization to help promote hunting and fishing. 

CPW identified early on that revenue from the plate could go to Fishing is Fun, which gives grants for improving areas for angling, typically by city recreational departments, and to build or improve shooting ranges. 

But the plate also offers a chance for people to show their pride in supporting the outdoors, said Tim Mauck, deputy director for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. In that sense, speciality plates are like fancier, larger bumper stickers, only ones that also raise money for the cause, not just promote it. Mauck, who also once served as the legislative liaison for the then-Colorado Division of Wildlife years ago, helped get the plate approved by the Colorado General Assembly.  

“We wanted to provide a chance for people to show their identity,” Mauck said. “This goes back to that message that we can promote hunting and fishing conservation, but then also it’s a very elegant opportunity to provide funding for those gateways as well.”

It was important, then, for CPW to come up with a license plate that was attractive as well as stately, and one with a clear message.

“My goal was to come up with a license plate that you’d be proud to have on your car,” said Tony Gurzick, manager of the CPW creative services and marketing section, who oversaw the creation of it. “I wanted it to represent what it meant to be a sportsperson in Colorado.”

That meant, in some ways, it had to stand out. Gurzick oversaw an inhouse design contest. There were many different designs — one had camo print for the sky, which was, thankfully, rejected — and ultimately Wayne Lewis, editor of Colorado Outdoors, balanced an orange sky with elk and the cutthroat trout in the middle. His winning design started with the decision to use real photos, a rare commodity on speciality plates, and that meant Mauro’s elk as well as the greenback cutthroat trout, a fish native to Colorado.

“While the greenback cutthroat is the state fish, the elk isn’t the state animal,” Gurzick said, “but it’s the one that people think of when they think of Colorado. It’s really an iconic image of Colorado.”

All of that had to be crammed onto a plate.

“Designing the plate was like designing an old-style western shirt where all is already done except for the yoke and a pocket,” Lewis said. “You have to squeeze as much creativity you can into about 20 percent of the total area.”

There were challenges beyond the plate limitations, due in part to the standard Colorado mountain silhouettes. Lewis also had to battle, if that’s the right word, with the Department of Corrections, which manufactures the plates.

“They would tweak it and send it back, and then I would change it back as much as possible,” Lewis said. “At one point, they switched out the fish based on Kevin Roger’s [CPW aquatic research scientist] cutthroat photo, and put in a clip-art trout that appeared to be smiling. That didn’t go over well.”

Unfortunately, when you personalize the plate, that fish goes away, Lewis said, but he’s still proud of the effort.

“I think looks have much more to do with sales than the cause,” he said. “There are other conservation plates for worthy causes that I rarely see on vehicles. I think that having constraints can make you focus as a designer. If all you have are a couple square inches, those inches should really impress.”

What is impressive are the boosts to Fishing is Fun and shooting range grants. “Those are known commodities,” said CPW Grants Administrator Jim Guthrie, who runs the sales numbers and is in charge of where the money goes. “Those really hit what the buyers wanted as far as the efforts they’d like to see promoted. Now we’re seeing $30,000 a month from plate renewals. That’s pretty good.”

Show your support by purchasing a Colorado Sportsperson’s License Plate today.​​ To request this designer plate: Please contact your local Depart​ment of Motor Vehicle office and request the “wildlife sporting plate” design. ​For more information, please visit the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website.

About: The license plate was created with House Bill 12-1275​.

Written by Dan England. Dan is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Colorado Outdoors. This article is copyrighted by the author.

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