Exploring SWAs in South Park

A recent fishing trip illustrates the beauty of State Wildlife Areas (SWAs) and the need to protect them via hunting and fishing license sales.
Fly fishing
Travis Duncan casts into the Middle Fork of the South Platte River as it runs through the Badger Basin State Wildlife Area in Park County. Photo courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife / Jamey Hastings


The world sure feels like it has changed a lot since my last Field Notes column back in early March. Since then, many of us have adapted to life in the “new normal” as each day brings updated developments in the global COVID-19 pandemic.

I, like many in Colorado, canceled my out-of-state vacation plans in June due to pandemic concerns. Instead, my family decided to stay closer to home, opting for a few days of fishing at Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s wildlife areas in the South Park area.   

It was a good time to go. As a public information officer with CPW, I’ve been answering quite a few questions from the public about a new rule that started July 1 requiring all visitors to Colorado’s State Wildlife Areas (SWA) to hold a valid hunting or fishing license to access the more than 350 of these properties in Colorado. 

Colorado’s SWAs are acquired with license dollars from hunters and anglers – and are managed with that funding today – primarily to restore, conserve, manage and enhance wildlife and wildlife habitat. 

Across the state, CPW has seen increasing use of state wildlife areas inconsistent with their purpose. A good example is camping, including people taking up temporary residence in SWAs. We’ve also seen vehicular use on big game winter ranges, pressure from hikers, maintenance issues, trash, vandalism and other uses detrimental to wildlife and wildlife-related uses.

And those aren’t the only problems.

As Colorado’s population has grown and physically expanded into closer proximity with many of these SWAs, public uses have increased and are reaching the point where they are not compatible with the original wildlife purpose. 

These other public uses have placed increasing pressure on the property infrastructure and habitat, resulting in wildlife being pushed off the properties, habitat degradation and increased costs for CPW.

Before heading to South Park, I looked at the SWAs we were planning to visit using Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s SWA finder to make sure fishing was allowed there.

Badger Basin State Wildlife Area

Badger Basin State Wildlife Area
Badger Basin State Wildlife Area

Our first stop was the Badger Basin State Wildlife Area outside of Hartsel.

On June 11, I traveled with my girlfriend, Jamey, and daughter, Natalie, from Colorado Springs up U.S. Highway 24, up and over Ute Pass and Wilkerson Pass, before turning north at Hartsel, heading a few miles up Park County Road 439 to the second and final parking lot.

Badger Basin SWA has 752 total acres with 22 miles of the Middle Fork of the South Platte River fishing access. It is absolutely beautiful country. 

It’s obvious why some would try to camp here, or have a picnic, or hike the SWA. But this is an important point about Badger Basin SWA: It is a fishing-only property. It’s not meant for other forms of outdoor recreation.  

When we got out of the car to put on our waders, I noted a sign indicating there was a Hartsel Easy Access River Trail. This is a neat amenity at Badger Basin and the kind of thing CPW uses angler license revenue to build on SWAs. It was a section of trail right off the parking lot that has been groomed for folks of all abilities to get close to the water, even if they had limited physical abilities, and do some fly-fishing. 

Natalie noticed all the frogs talking and quickly found one to show me.  

A sign indicated the fishing here was artificial lures only. I’m still a novice fly-fisherman, but we were determined to do our best. Careful to keep my distance from the bull that had decided to graze quite close to us, I tied my last stone fly on and waded out into a small eddy, hoping to cast into the still water just past a section of ripples.

Success! I got a small brown trout on the line and Jamey helped net him on the river bank. We took a quick photo op before I released the brownie back into the stream to grow larger for the next angler.

Brown Trout

Tomahawk State Wildlife Area

Tomahawk State Wildlife Area
Tomahawk State Wildlife Area

The following day, we headed up the road to Tomahawk State Wildlife Area just northwest of Badger Basin, for more fly-fishing on the middle fork.

Tomahawk SWA offers 1,655 acres of public access for fishing (artificial lures only) as well as hunting for deer, elk, pronghorn and waterfowl. The mosquitoes were out in force and we quickly regretted not bringing any insect repellant.

Jamey takes a quick photo before releasing her trout.
Jamey Hastings displays a trout she caught while fishing the Middle Fork of the South Platte River as it runs through Tomahawk State Wildlife Area in Park County. 
Artificial Fly
Artificial Fly

Jamey had more luck than me on this day. She took a look at the kinds of bugs that were flitting around us and tied on a black artificial fly that landed a small brown trout. (She didn’t need my help landing it.) It was fairly small, so she decided to release her trout as well. We’ve both been skunked on more than one fly-fishing expedition, so we were thrilled to have each reeled in a fish.   

Coming home and reviewing our trip, we really enjoyed our socially distanced mini-vacation and appreciated the fantastic outdoors opportunities available to us in Colorado.

Back at Work

Back at work, I continued answering calls from the public from folks who’ve grown accustomed to engaging in their chosen form of outdoor recreation on state wildlife areas, often for free. 

I took calls from river rafters who put in at an SWA. Hikers who use the trails on a particular SWA to connect to other public properties. OHV riders who use the trails on an SWA. All wanted to know if their trail use now requires a license. 

My answer has been the same: If you’re on an SWA, you need to possess a valid hunting or fishing license. 

And I’ve tried to emphasize the important point that much of the unintended use of these properties is driving wildlife off these sanctuaries – the very reason these properties were acquired or leased in the first place. 

If you care about wildlife in Colorado, buying a hunting or fishing license is one of the best ways to protect it, whether or not you actually hunt or fish.

Many have asked why a wildlife-watching license isn’t offered instead. CPW actually offered a wildlife-watching license in the past, but it ran afoul of the federal rules of wildlife conservation funding. 

Here’s the short explanation. (And it’s not very short.) The majority of funding for wildlife conservation comes from federal grants based on each states’ sales of hunting and fishing licenses and from excise taxes on firearms and archery equipment. 

Several years ago, the General Assembly voted to require all users of SWAs to purchase a state Wildlife Habitat Stamp as a way to generate conservation funding. 

It failed for a couple reasons. First, only hunters or anglers complied, for the most part. Those who only hike or watch wildlife or camp didn’t bother to buy the stamp.

Second, funding for SWAs actually fell because federal officials ruled the Habitat Stamp was classified as “program income” and it ended up decreasing our federal grant money by the same amount we were able to bring in. 

The General Assembly eventually repealed that statute.

In hopes of increasing conservation funding and reducing unintended use of SWAs, the CPW Commission on April 30, 2020, voted to require users of SWAs to purchase a fishing or hunting license for entry. CPW will receive additional property-management funding, unlike the prior Habitat Stamp requirement. 

So if you’re thinking of visiting an SWA, check it out first on Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s SWA finder and make sure you know what kinds of activities are allowed there and what wildlife it is meant to protect. 

And don’t forget to get your hunting or fishing license at cpwshop.com before you go. 

Live Life outside!

Travis Duncan is a public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Denver. Travis has lived in Colorado nearly 20 years and loves the outdoors. If you have a question, please email him at travis.duncan@state.co.us

One Response

  1. Perhaps an article with photos of areas used for dispersed camping and the detrimental results of people camping for free. Another article might cover the expansion of bicycles, including e bikes on and off designated trails. They pay no taxes on bicycles or biking equipment to help maintain city and mountain trails, some used to be just hiking trails. Volunteers who work on the Colorado Trail are well aware of damages caused by bicycles.

    Live life outdoors but leave no trace.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


✉ Follow for Updates

Subscribe to Colorado Outdoors Online by Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

More Posts

Translate »