Why we hunt
Corey D. Adler
District Wildlife Manager − Colorado Springs/Northwest El Paso County
District Wildlife Manager − Teller County
In Colorado, it’s more than the beauty of the changing aspens that attracts people to the mountains each fall. There appears to be a lot more vehicles on the highways, pulling trailers loaded with ATVs, coolers, and maybe a tree stand or two. And the people in those vehicles likely are wearing camouflage or bright orange clothing.
Of course, the colors we’re seeing are not Broncos orange, but hunter orange. It’s hunting season and for many people out there seeing these colors and sights means fall is truly here.
With so many newcomers to Colorado − and to our region, specifically − I want to discuss the traditions of hunting and why it’s a very important part in how Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) manages our wildlife statewide.
As long as humans have roamed the earth, hunting has been critical to survival as a main source for food and furs. As the population expanded, the increased demand on wildlife led to many species becoming extirpated (extinct in a specific location), endangered or actually extinct.
Starting in the late 19th century, values began shifting from exploitation to conservation. Conservation is the “wise use” of a resource. People became concerned with the dwindling numbers and the looming loss of wildlife. A moratorium was placed on hunting and fishing for most species to allow them to recover.
This period without hunting worked extremely well and most populations began to recover within a few decades. Colorado Parks and Wildlife also took proactive steps to restore wildlife by reintroducing extirpated species, such as the lynx, greenback cutthroat trout, black-footed ferret, bighorn sheep and moose.
As populations grew, biologists and wildlife managers shifted from recovery mode to stabilization mode. And that brings us to an important concept with any wildlife resource: “carrying capacity.”
Carrying capacity is the number of animals the habitat can support in any given time. This can be throughout a season, a year, or over an extended period of time. At CPW, our wildlife biologists are constantly counting big game herds and assessing whether enough food, water, shelter and space exist on the landscape to help sustain that number of animals at a carrying capacity.
This concept of carrying capacity is tied into why we hunt in the fall. Most wildlife have their young in the spring when blooming plant life makes for abundant food sources and there is plenty of water from melting snow. The habitat is at its best during the spring and summer and can support the largest number of wildlife.
However, as fall approaches the grass begins to die, creeks dwindle, and soon winter will blanket everything with snow. During fall and winter, the habitat can support fewer animals. We hunt in early fall to remove the excess wildlife that the habitat wouldn’t be able to support.
Biologists and wildlife managers use the best scientific data and their extensive knowledge of the habitat to set goals and objectives for wildlife populations. The primary tool they use to balance the wildlife with the habitat is hunting.
Long hours go into the decision of how many hunting licenses should be issued for each species in each area of the state. This is how wildlife professionals attempt to avoid habitat destruction from overgrazing, wildlife conflicts such as crop damage, vehicle collisions and disease outbreak, while also maintaining healthy, reproducing herds.
We don’t want wildlife to starve to death because we’ve allowed them to multiply unchecked and overrun the landscape, leaving nothing to eat during the depths of winter.
While everyone may not want to participate in hunting, it remains the best scientific way to manage wildlife populations and has helped actively conserve wildlife for the last century.
Some numbers may help put this into perspective:
After nearly being extirpated from Colorado in the early 1900s, mule deer populations have rebounded to over 400,000.
Elk populations, bolstered by introductions from Wyoming, now stand over 280,000 − more than any other state in the U.S.
Pronghorn, those speedy mammals of the prairies, went from about 15,000 animals to over 65,000 today.
Hundreds of endangered black-foot ferrets have been released in Colorado and their population has been growing.
Lynx were successfully reintroduced in Colorado and they have expanded across the high country.
Moose were reintroduced in 1978 and there are well-established populations all over the state.
All of these animals are managed and funded by hunting and the licenses associated with hunting.
Now some people may still wonder why we need hunting. Why can’t we just let nature take its course and manage the animals naturally? Unfortunately, since humans have started expanding more and more throughout the world, we have impacted the balance between predators and prey that typically keeps wild animal populations in check.
This is where hunting comes to the rescue. By allowing hunters to take a certain number of animals from a population, they manage that population as a predator would have. This managed take through hunting helps keep populations at good levels near carrying capacity, keeps the habitat in good condition, and helps keep the hunting tradition alive and well.
So, the next time you’re out walking in the mountains, or even just in your backyard, and you see some elk or deer wandering around, remember, hunting in Colorado helps with the management of these animals and without it and the hard work of CPW biologists, we might not be able to enjoy them and their beauty around us.