That color you see in the woods represents careful management of wildlife | Wildlife Matters
District Wildlife Manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife
You might notice a little more orange, and even pink, in the woods when you are out hiking, biking or wildlife-watching.
I’m not talking about leaves changing color. I’m talking about hunter orange and hunter pink — the colors of hats and vests hunters wear to make themselves visible to other hunters on the landscape this time of year.
Fall is the start of multiple hunting seasons — deer, elk, bear, mountain lion, bighorn sheep, various birds, and more. So it’s a good time for me to discuss why people hunt and how Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers and biologists use hunting to manage wildlife herds.
I didn’t grow up learning to hunt from a parent or sibling. I just started hunting five years ago, about the same time I began pursuing a career as a wildlife officer.
Hunting wasn’t a completely foreign concept to me. My grandpa was a hunter and I grew up listening to stories from my mom about how they never ate meat purchased from a grocery store.
I dreamed of living a life like that, so, when I became old enough, I decided to look into pursuing my dream. First I had to discard a lot of common misconceptions I had learned about hunting.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that people shoot whatever animal they like, whenever they please. This certainly describes hunting a century ago. Back when America was being settled, it was a free-for-all. There were no laws or regulations.
And this explains why so many animals went extinct and many other animals that were once plentiful became threatened or endangered. It’s hard to imagine, with all the deer running around Colorado Springs neighborhoods, and everywhere from Monument to Fountain, Woodland Park to Falcon, that mule deer were almost extirpated from Colorado in the early 1900s.
Fortunately, we learned our lesson and hunting is now closely regulated. We have strict hunting laws and regulations in place today to ensure wildlife populations thrive and people stay safe.
It takes a large staff of highly educated and trained CPW terrestrial biologists and wildlife officers. But here’s another cool thing about Colorado: The sale of hunting licenses pays for all those biologists and wildlife officers to conserve our wildlife.
Through hunting license fees and tax on firearms and hunting equipment, we can boast of many successful conservation efforts:
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.
In Colorado, we have hunting seasons and you have to have a hunting license, which specifies which species you can legally take.
For small game licenses, there are daily bag limits and seasons for each species you can hunt with a small game license. Further, for big game licenses you are only allowed one animal per license and can only hunt in the designated season and area on your license. And often it is only valid for about one week. That is often not a lot of time for the opportunity to harvest an animal.
So how does CPW decide how many licenses to give out each year? It is quite a complex process. Every year, wildlife officers and biologists do population surveys on herds. This is my favorite part of the job. We do the surveys on the ground or from a helicopter or plane.
Our biologists input the numbers into a computer program and out pops a population estimate, with female/young ratios and male/female ratios. We then study the trends: is the population increasing, decreasing or staying status quo?
CPW staff also monitors the carrying capacity for each of the landscapes each herd occupies. We call these areas Data Analysis Units (DAU).
What is carrying capacity, you ask? Carrying capacity is the number of animals the habitat can support throughout the year. It’s one of the reasons that we hunt in the fall.
During the winter, the amount of resources available to big game herds drastically decreases. There isn’t enough food and water to go around for every animal on the landscape. If we allowed populations to go unchecked, many animals would starve. Hunting is the best tool, as wildlife managers, to prevent wildlife from overusing the limited resources.
After we conduct the surveys, compile all the data and study the trend, we have yearly license setting meetings. CPW staff looks at the population information, along with carrying capacity. Lengthy conversations are had, based on the data, on whether hunting licenses in a given area should be increased, decreased or stay the same.
When staff members are concerned about a herd and want to increase the population, we decrease licenses available — particularly the female licenses. This means fewer opportunities for hunters in the short run. But hopefully it will result in a healthier, stable population in the future.
I won’t get into all the details about the hunting license application process. It’s complicated and involves hunters earning preference points that affect their chances in the “draw” for licenses to pursue different big game species.
The bottom line is that the draw is a lottery system and hunters are not guaranteed a license. In fact, for certain highly sought licenses, it can take a hunter 28 years or more to draw that license. And they might never get it. If a hunter only likes to hunt in a specific area and species, he or she may only be able to hunt every few years, depending on the license allocation.
Not only can getting a license be difficult sometimes, hunters often go through a lot of work to harvest an animal. Yes, sometimes someone gets lucky and it’s an easy hunt. More often than not, a successful harvest requires hours of scouting and days at the shooting range, miles of hiking, unbelievable patience, and then packing the meat out.
An elk may look small, but imagine packing out 160 pounds of meat out in a pack (along with other gear), while making multiple trips over miles. It’s hard work.
Given the low odds of scoring a coveted license, the cost, the time and work involved scouting, actually hunting, then cleaning your animal and packing it out, you may be asking why even bother to hunt?
Many do it just for the meat. The cost of a license doesn’t seem high if it fills your freezer with meat for the winter.
Many hunt because they know they are getting the most organic meat possible. These animals have lived wild lives, eating what nature provides and never had steroids, antibiotics or other drugs injected in them.
Many do it for the experience, and the tradition.
For me, there is nothing better than spending time in the woods. Even if I don’t harvest an animal, the memories are priceless.
There is also the pride in being able to provide meat for myself for the year. I know where the meat came from and I know that it was taken care of properly.
As I mentioned, my grandpa was a hunter and it’s a way I can feel connected to him, even though I never got to meet him. In fact, I harvested my first deer on the same land where he hunted so many years ago.
If you have an interest in hunting but don’t know where to start, CPW has a lot of programs to help novice hunters learn the skill sets to be successful. Find them here: cpw.state.co.us/learn/Pages/HunterOutreach.aspx.
In the coming months, I’ll share more tips and stories about wildlife issues in our community. If you have a question, problem or column idea, please call me at 719-227-5287.