Colorado State Wildlife Areas: New Rules and what they mean for all Coloradans

Colorado’s SWAs were originally acquired - and are managed today - primarily to restore, conserve, manage, and enhance wildlife and wildlife habitat.
Reddy State Wildlife Area

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

CPW staff and volunteers perform trail maintenance at Urad State Wildlife Area.
CPW staff and volunteers perform trail maintenance at Urad State Wildlife Area.

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

bighorn sheep
Bighorn Sheep

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.     

Additional information on this new rule is available on CPW’s website

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

12 Responses

  1. Yes, I printed the areas that are off limits to hikers & have a copy in both vehicles. We aren’t hunters or fisherman but hike & ski in the mtns w/approp passes. This article only addressed “Colorado people.” Didn’t address out of state people here spreading the covid19 as not wearing masks or social distancing. Who is addressing this crowd as they need to purch licenses before stepping on these restricted areas? Also not addressed were the outfitters who transport out of staters to our mtns. Are they selling them licenses?

    1. “Also not addressed were the outfitters who transport out of staters to our mtns. Are they selling them licenses?”

      Every hunter, including out of state hunters, must have a valid hunting license. Even those who have hired an outfitter. So they have been addressed and out of state hunters pay at least 10X as much as a CO resident does for those licenses.

      1. “So they have been addressed and out of state hunters pay at least 10X as much as a CO resident does for those licenses.”

        Which is still too little… Unfortunatley Colorado still charges the least amount for big game licenses for non residents. Its way past time that Colorado charge what all the westrern states do for big game hunting licenses!

  2. The population explosion in the world of outdoor recreation is real. Covid 19 has prompted a significant increase in local folks just trying to get out and “DO ” something. This seems an appropriate measure to help spread out the congestion and promote social distancing.Not to mention preservation…

    Thanks CPW

  3. I live and have hunted big game in Colorado for the last 40+ years and all I’ve noticed is that th3e DOW and forestry service have closed roads and limited access to areas I’ve hunted before.I don’t own pack animals and don’t use outfitters so me and my buddy have to do it the hard way, drag it out to the road. As far as I’m concerned we have enough protected land. You have signs everywhere saying you are protecting the habitat so the area is closed, so you’re protecting the animal I’m hunting? You are way beyond conservation as far as I’m concerned.

  4. I recently tried to apply for an elk license in area 500-national forest land-it didn’t go through because of the need for a fishing license/small game-of which I do neither. If I happen to get an elk license, chances are my wife won’t let me go-so it is one way to support wildlife efforts-not anymore.

  5. My wife and I recently visited a SWA. I always have a hunting and fishing license on me. She normally does not. I had read the new rule earlier in the year but had forgotten about it. There were signs posted in the area that reminded me. We had to drive 25 miles, one way, to the nearest town to get her a fishing license. But we did it and felt better for it. We enjoyed a great week in the area.

  6. This is a great message. It explains the how and the why. CPW is truly trying to take care of the assets (resources) they have been entrusted to take care of. CPW is not a typical governmental agency that hands out charity. First, these areas should be used in accordance with the intended uses. Second, everyone who uses these areas (for the intended purposes) should assist with payments for the maintenance and upkeep of those areas. In addition, some of these areas may need to be closed from time to time as part of the wildlife management tools and all should follow those postings. We have some great assets and they need to be taken care of. Thank you CPW for addressing this issue.

  7. One very important issue that is not discussed in this article, is cattle grazing in certain State Wildlife Areas. Our SWA is managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and they have cattle grazing agreements with 2 local ranchers. The cattle show up in April and are not removed until November. We have counted close to 200 head some years, and the cattle are free to roam the lake and the creek riparian area that feeds the lake. I’m told that this has been going on for over 20 years.Consequently, the shores of the lake and creek become laden with excrement, and campers, boaters, fishermen and hunters have to dodge the cow pies when they attempt to recreate. After so many years of aggressive grazing, sections of the creek banks have collapsed, are severely eroded, compacted, and the waters are laden with sediment. There are fish in the lake but we have seen no signs of fish it that section of the creek. Every spring hundreds of migrating birds arrive at the lake to feed, rest and nest. The prime nesting area is the riparian green belt on either side of the creek. Unfortunately, the green belt is also occupied by grazing cattle. Any nests in that area will be exposed to grazing disturbances and possible trampling from the hundreds of hooves. We have had a very hot and dry summer and the water levels in the lake and creek are desperately low. The lake is experiencing an algae bloom which is usually caused by extremely warm weather and the introduction of nutrients (most likely fecal matter). In spite of the drought conditions and the damage that has been done to the riparian area, CPW managers are allowing cattle to graze in the area.

  8. The first paragraph of this article “Colorado’s SWAs were originally acquired – and managed today – primarily to restore, conserve, manage, and enhance wildlife and wildlife habitat”. The intended use of wildlife areas does not include cattle grazing. In fact access rule #12 clearly states that “It is prohibited to graze livestock”. So why is CPW allowing this to continue? I agree with Ron “CPW should not hand out charity, and everyone who uses these areas should assist with payments for the maintenance and upkeep of those areas”. Maintenance of these wildlife areas is paid for exclusively by angler and hunter license fees and anybody entering these areas, as of July 1, 2020 is required to posses a license. Yet cattlemen are allowed to profit from the free graze and water, while their cattle contaminate the waters, and degrade the wildlife and recreational habitat. Hundreds of studies have been done regarding the negative impacts of “grazing cattle in riparian areas. The conclusion of every study: “to successfully restore, conserve, and enhance wildlife habitat, cattle must be excluded from riparian areas”. We have photo documentation of the extensive damage caused by the cattle, and have filed formal complaints to all branches of CPW. Many of our questions remain unanswered and as of Aug. 15 at least 40 head of cattle graze freely in our wildlife area. I have been a faithful supporter of our SWAs for 15 years, but I do not support policies that degrade and destroy wildlife habitat. I will no longer purchase a fishing license.

  9. Cattle are a major problem in the SWA’s…I had to throw away my boots and waders because of the rotten cow dung in the bogs….not to mention they destroyed a bottom section where I fell into a hole made by the cattle’s excessive weight…injuring my knee.

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