As many people are now aware, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission adopted a rule change at its April 2020 meeting requiring all visitors 18 or older to possess a valid hunting or fishing license to access any State Wildlife Area or State Trust Land leased by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. This new rule went into effect beginning July 1, 2020.
We have seen some confusion and some misunderstanding of this new rule and the intent behind it. We would like to take this opportunity to explain what SWAs are and why the Commission felt it was time to take some action to help protect and preserve the original purpose of these natural resources that make Colorado so special.
CPW manages more than 350 SWAs around Colorado. These lands are first and foremost meant to conserve important habitat for Colorado wildlife, they are not state parks. The first State Administrative Area, the precursor to State Wildlife Areas was set aside in 1881, demonstrating Coloradans commitment to conservation. Hunters and anglers have long been the foundation of conservation in Colorado and the conservation and protection of these properties is evidence of that. The money spent by hunters and anglers, through the purchase of licenses and excise taxes on their gear, funds most of Colorado’s conservation programs, wildlife management to include non-game wildlife and threatened and endangered species, habitat restoration as well as providing access for recreationists. These particular properties were purchased by CPW using hunting and fishing license dollars intended for wildlife habitat and for hunters and anglers so they have places to hunt and fish. They do serve as great locations for wildlife watching, environmental education and the enjoyment of nature, but these are secondary opportunities on these properties.
Unlike national forests or local government parks, SWAs are not designed for multi-use recreation although for decades CPW has allowed many uses on these properties. 20 years ago the additional recreation could be managed within the objectives of the properties. However, the increased population and recreation pressure on these properties is beginning to become incompatible with the original intent. Many of these properties are at risk of no longer serving as havens for wildlife. Due to increased recreation use, CPW can no longer support the broad use while ignoring the needs of the wildlife and those who purchased the properties.
Acquired by and for Hunters and Anglers
Colorado’s SWAs were originally acquired – and are managed today – primarily to restore, conserve, manage, and enhance wildlife and wildlife habitat. Some of the important habitats protected by SWAs include wintering areas for big game, calving and fawning areas for big game, spawning habitat for fish, and nesting habitat for a variety of birds. These properties were also acquired to provide access for hunting and fishing.
The question of adequate funding for wildlife conservation has been an ongoing one for many years. Many residents in Colorado don’t realize that CPW is not funded by tax dollars, but instead by the purchases of licenses, registrations and state park passes and distributions from Great Outdoors Colorado. The majority of funding for wildlife conservation comes from hunting and fishing licenses and excise taxes on firearms and archery equipment as well as fishing equipment.
Other Wildlife-related Recreation
For decades people have been using these properties for a variety of recreational pursuits. Wildlife watchers, photographers and environmental educators have found refuge in these spaces; however the use has expanded past those compatible activities to include hiking, mountain biking, snowshoeing, paddle boarding, dog walking, running, dispersed camping sites, cross-country skiing, picnic areas and more. There was a time when these additional recreation activities were limited enough that they remained consistent with the original purpose of the SWAs. As Colorado’s population has grown and physically expanded into closer proximity with many of these SWAs, public uses have increased and the pressure has expanded. More residents are using SWAs as they would open spaces or local parks.
Increased Demand, Increased Pressure
Higher visitation, increased pressure on the habitat, and activities that are disruptive to wildlife are simply incompatible with the original wildlife purpose of our SWAs. Results of this increasing pressure include wildlife being pushed off the properties, habitat degradation and user conflict. It is neither fair nor appropriate to ask anglers and hunters to continue financially supporting these properties while facing a reduction in their access to them. Even with seasonal closures for critical wildlife needs or hunting seasons we have observed many recreationists ignore posted signs.
License Purchases and the Commission’s Decision
The Commission’s recently passed regulation on this issue represents a “middle ground” compromise. The approach that would be most true to the intended purpose of state wildlife areas would be to only allow access when a person is actively hunting or fishing, and wildlife watching, photography and birding outside of the hunting season. Allowing others to access the property and contribute to its management by buying a hunting or fishing license is intended to begin to address unfettered use of these properties while still acknowledging that CPW encourages people to enjoy the outdoors in all fashions.
In order to bring the properties back to their intended use – vital habitat for wildlife and sporting opportunities for hunters and anglers – this license requirement does result in additional property-management funding through Federal Aid match funding. Most Coloradans understand the need to fund conservation and recreation at a much higher level than it is today. By supporting the purchase of a hunting or fishing license, Coloradans are also helping CPW expand its capacity through the additional federal funding. It’s also important to note that this is a conversation that is continuing. Funding is just one piece. The other, and probably more challenging is the level of use. We have to address the level of use on these properties, which is also a conversation many Coloradans understand. Our natural resources cannot sustain unmanaged use at any level – they are an asset we not only have to invest in, but also mitigate our impacts.
Repealed Habitat Stamp Requirement
Several years ago, the General Assembly attempted to address the challenge of increasing management costs by requiring all users of SWAs to purchase a state Wildlife Habitat Stamp. Unfortunately, fewer members of the public that were not hunters or anglers complied with the requirement. Additionally, because they bought a Habitat Stamp instead of a hunting or fishing license, our federal grant was reduced dollar for dollar for every Habitat Stamp sold to a non-hunter or non-angler. In other words, CPW did not generate any new revenue and actually lost money on the approach due to the costs to issue the habitat stamps and to provide education and enforcement related to the state law. The General Assembly eventually repealed that statute.
Alternate Funding and Use Opportunities
CPW understands that there are many who recreate in the outdoors who would like to continue to pursue the activities that they’ve traditionally enjoyed on SWAs. Many recreationists have reached out to CPW since the April Commission decision with questions about other options for contributing financially. We are encouraged by the number of outdoor enthusiasts who have contacted us over the past few months inquiring how they can contribute. If you’re not a hunter or angler, but want to help preserve important spaces for activities like wildlife watching and hiking, we want you to know we’re listening. We want people to be a part of the solution.
It’s important for all Coloradans to understand how wildlife conservation is funded, and to help spread the word about the large contributions made by hunters and anglers for over a century, including these important areas of habitat that help ensure the future of Colorado’s wildlife. Although people enjoy the outdoors in many ways there are few who directly contribute. This is not meant to be a slight to any group, it is simply the truth. In Colorado CPW manges 960 species, only 40 of which are deemed game-species. The other 920 species benefit from the money hunters, anglers and recreational shooters provide for conservation. We put these dollars to work by investing in habitat conservation and restoration, disease research, non-game wildlife management including threatened and endangered species, water quality testing, river restoration, addressing challenges in landscape connectivity and wildlife crossings and so much more.
These dollars mean so much to Colorado’s natural landscape. They are invested in our natural resources, which are assets worth investing in.
As Colorado’s population keeps growing, there will continue to be challenges and new ways of thinking needed to work together in conserving our natural resources while providing for great outdoor opportunities.
Follow our Facebook and Twitter pages, consider attending commission meetings and stay in touch with us over the coming year as we begin to work on forums and other opportunities to collect the great feedback we know you’ll bring to the table.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org