Still shots filled the view screens of the Colorado Wildlife Commission’s virtual meeting April 30. These showed semi-permanent encampments, littered with junk; a lake where paddleboarders outnumbered the lone fishing boat; a couple walking a dog.
The common link? Unless they had a hunting or fishing license, the campers, paddleboarders and dog-walkers were not contributing to the upkeep of the state wildlife areas they were using.
The problem? The state wildlife areas were purchased through hunting and fishing license revenue and, further, were established to provide habitat for wildlife and, secondarily, wildlife-related uses.
After about an hour of discussion April 30, the Colorado Wildlife Commission acted in hopes of returning state wildlife areas to their intended purpose. Starting July 1, anyone 18 or older must have a valid hunting or fishing license to access state wildlife areas, as well as the state trust lands CPW leases from the State Land Board through the Public Access Program. With the Thursday addition of 210,000 acres, 777,000 acres were enrolled in the program.
Just as people who use state parks should expect to pay entrance fees, all users need to become accustomed to contributing to state wildlife areas, it was said during the commission’s April meeting.
“For years, we’ve been seeing more and more use and abuse of our state wildlife areas by non-wildlife users,” said Montrose Area Wildlife Manager for CPW Renzo DelPiccolo on Wednesday. DelPiccolo led an agency-wide team that began looking at the issue in January.
“These wildlife areas are purchased to protect wildlife habitat and for hunting and angling. We’ve been allowing those (other) uses, but have come to the realization that it’s really degrading and negatively impacting the value that they were purchased for. They were purchased with sportsmen’s dollars — hunting and fishing license fees.”
CPW is an enterprise agency that does not receive state general fund dollars. Its money comes mostly from the sales of hunting and fishing licenses, plus it receives money from federal excise taxes collected on hunting and fishing equipment, such as ammunition, and grants from Great Outdoors Colorado.
CPW in 2006 launched a Habitat Stamp program as a prototype, whereby non-hunters and non-anglers could buy just the stamp to support the state wildlife areas they use.
The Habitat Stamp, at $10.13 per season, is required to apply for or purchase a hunting or fishing license. (An annual fishing license for adult state residents under 65 is $35.17; it is $9.85 for older adult state residents. For nonresidents, the fee is about $98. Combo licenses for fishing and small game also are available. Big game licenses vary.)
As far as getting non-wildlife users to kick in more for state wildlife areas, the Habitat Stamp was not particularly successful, Southeast Regional Manager Brett Ackerman told the commission April 30.
The stamp income was deducted from the federal fund allotments to which CPW was entitled, but U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has assured the agency that won’t be the case with hunting and fishing licenses, Ackerman said. The agency can retain all of that income without having federal aid deducted from it.
“As a cash-funded agency and one that has property specific to the care for wildlife … it seems important to us that if there are going to be folks out there on state wildlife areas, they should be contributing,” Ackerman said.
The rule change carved out a few limited exceptions for administrative uses. The action also will replace the day-use access permits that are in place on four state wildlife areas with the license requirements — a change Ackerman said will require continued education.
Although the rule change goes into effect July 1, education will be favored over enforcement action for about the first year, he also said.
“We’re not seeking to catch people off guard and write them tickets. We want to curtail non-wildlife use of these properties and return them to their original intended purpose,” he said.
The effect of non-wildlife-related uses being seen at state wildlife areas ranges from benign to severe. People walking their dogs may not be causing direct harm to the land itself, however, dogs and other canids have a negative effect on game, Ackerman said.
Paddleboards on lakes within state wildlife areas tend to displace their intended users — the anglers, who pay for fishing licenses.
Ackerman also showed snowmobile tracks going through a state wildlife area that provides winter range to elk; that kind of activity stresses the animals and pushes them from their habitat.
And when the encampments people build are at last abandoned, the squatters don’t necessarily clean up after themselves; they leave behind a mess, including biohazards, for CPW to expend resources on mitigating.
“There’s certainly an impact on staff and resources, potential public health impact, degradation of habitat and displacement of wildlife,” Ackerman said.
According to the commission’s agenda document, field staff all over the state have watched with growing concern as the uses on state wildlife areas and leased state trust lands have shifted to free camping and hiking as primary activities, as opposed to use incidental to wildlife-related recreation.
“To protect the integrity of these properties for their intended use — the perpetuation and conservation of wildlife and wildlife recreation — (the regulation) has been added to require all persons 18 years of age or older hold a valid hunting or fishing license to access any SWA,” the document states.
Of 26 other states that responded to CPW with information about how they address similar issues, a quarter said they require hunting and fishing licenses to access such properties, while others are considering such measures, Ackerman said April 30.
“People don’t understand how these properties differ from state parks or Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands, which is understandable,” DelPiccolo said Wednesday.
“ … Most people are used to our federal lands that are managed for multiple use, but our state wildlife areas are not. They’re very specific. Over the years we’ve allowed (other uses) and we’ve really lost a lot of the core values of those properties.”
State wildlife areas also have regulations for use that can vary by site.
The Cerro Summit SWA east of Montrose, for instance, limits activity to hunting and catch-and-release fishing at Cerro Reservoir. It is not open at present, as the dam is still being repaired. The reservoir is owned and operated by the City of Montrose and it is emergency water storage for Project 7 Water Authority, although the SWA component is operated by CPW.
Other state wildlife areas in the Montrose region are Billy Creek, between Montrose and Ridgway, and the Escalante State Wildlife Area northwest of Delta.
DelPiccolo reiterated the goal is to get back to the original intent behind the state wildlife areas and leased state trust lands. Although not everyone may agree with the commission’s decision, others understand the state is losing wildlife habitat and more must be done, he said: “This way, everyone can contribute to wildlife management.”