Officials have warned those hunters looking to put in for big game draw tags in Colorado to enter their application as early as possible to avoid processing backups. Although many hunters find themselves asking why there is a sudden increase of hunter participation in Colorado, especially at a time when hunting seems to be in decline everywhere else in the country. If we can unlock the secrets of what's working in Colorado, perhaps aspects of it can be applied to other parts of the country. After all, the sales of hunting licenses are a source of major funding for conservation that's desperately needed by state wildlife agencies in most states. We can directly tie current events of the last few years into the equation, but it's likely bigger than that.
Each of these causes of hunting popularity in Colorado are much bigger topics than simply stating them outright and just being done with them. Each has some nuances that affect hunting directly and we need to dive into each of them to get a better understanding of this increased popularity in Colorado hunting.
The Rise in Population and an Increase in Visitation
One of the biggest contributors to the rise in hunting popularity in Colorado is a large influx of people moving there. Since 2015, almost 300,000 people have permanently changed their residence to Colorado. Although growth has been slowing down over the past few years, thousands and thousands of people continue to flock to Colorado annually. There are various reasons people are moving to Colorado. For one, Colorado has been known as a state with high economic opportunity, but it also provides many opportunities for work-life balance. Many of those opportunities revolve around the outdoors and the numerous outdoor activities that Colorado has to offer. Hunting is included in those outdoor activities as the different wildlife species that call the Centennial State home are quite abundant and offer a bevy of hunting opportunities other states can only dream about.
Outside of just the rise in residential population, Colorado also tends to be one of the most visited states by out-of-state hunters for the reason we mentioned earlier. With Colorado's tag draws and generous over-the-counter tag options, it has become a hotspot for additional hunters to try their best against some of the best big game animals in the United States.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife also does an incredibly good job at providing local and out-of-state hunters online resources for both new and seasoned hunters to access. This takes a lot of guesswork out of hunting in the state, especially if you are an out-of-state hunter or new to hunting in Colorado. More states would be wise to follow the lead of how Colorado encourages and caters to out-of-state hunters.
COVID-19 Pandemic Increases Outdoor Activity
When the world shut down in the early spring of 2020, many people were stuck at home with little more to do than watch Netflix and wonder when life would be normal again. But with parents and children alike being home now, many took the opportunity to get outside and explore their favorite or new outdoor activities. The biggest outdoor attractions during the pandemic were boating, fishing, hunting, and recreational vehicle use. In terms of participation in these activities, Colorado saw its largest single-year increase in the 15 years that they have been recording data on these activities. By the fall of 2020, when hunting season rolled around, the lockdown had been lifted but there were still many restrictions imposed on the lives of civilians. There were also rising prices of goods and food to go along with a world supply chain issue. In several ways, this directly impacted the public into deciding to head out into the wild and hunt for their own food.
Some turned to hunting either out of interest for the edible meat that big game hunting can provide or out of fear that there could be a meat shortage or a huge increase in meat prices. Others turned to hunting because they had more time due to time off work or could more easily work their schedules around hunting season due to remote work. And we all probably know at least one person that used mandatory quarantine guidelines as a form of "vacation" to be out in the woods more. But mum's the word on who those people in our circle might have done that.
In any case, in Colorado alone, hunting had been on an 11-year plummet in participation until the 2020 hunting season when it saw a considerable increase. While many other states fell off on hunter numbers as restrictions loosened, Colorado's growth has sustained itself into 2022 and looks to be holding solid moving forward. You can probably thank the state's beautiful vistas and great success rates for a bevy of game species as helping to bring more hunters into the fold and keep them there for the long term.
Larger Herds and More Species Options
According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Colorado's elk population sits at over 280,000 animals and has the largest elk population in the world. It helps that some of the biggest bulls in the country are also found there. As a result, these majestic animals draw hunters from all over the United States to Colorado.
With elk alone, Colorado saw over 215,000 hunters purchase or draw tags in 2021. Of those, 35,230 elk were harvested for a 16% success rate. Hunters logged an astonishing 1,126,179 days in the field hunting for elk. These numbers go to show the real lengths that hunters are willing to go through to try and take an elk every year. It's not a coincidence Colorado made itself the go-to state for elk hunting either. They did it with solid and smart wildlife management and word gets around to any hunter who has an elk on his or her bucket list.
As if the elk weren't reason enough for hunters to flock to Colorado, they've got a bevy of other species that are valued by hunters. Animals like whitetail and mule deer, moose, pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep are other big game animals that share habitats and are available to be hunted in Colorado. Some of them, like mountain goats and bighorn sheep, are much harder to acquire tags for but generate a lot of interest for a once-in-a-lifetime type of hunt. When you look at all the species that can be hunted in Colorado, the state is essentially a one stop shop for the most popular big game in North America. This aspect does give Colorado an edge that cannot be matched by most states, at least not without some dramatic changes to wildlife management in other states.
Access to public land is another contributing factor to the rise in popularity of hunting in Colorado. Colorado is ranked 11th in total public land open to hunting with 23,397,000 acres that are open to the public for hunting. For many people, this can be a Godsend. State wildlife agencies have done the research, and one of the biggest hurdles to people either starting hunting or continuing to hunt is a simple lack of places to do it.
With public land, more people can have an opportunity to access hunting without the need to own acres and acres of land with big game on them. Especially when the most popular animal to hunt in Colorado is elk, they need a lot of land to roam. And Colorado public lands offer just the right habitat for that to happen.
With 35% of Colorado's land open to public hunting, it is easy to see why people take to hunting in the state so easily with that type of access to land for everyone to use. It's also easier to find a quiet place to hunt away from the competition in Colorado than it is in other states. That plays a big part. Access is a big reason you see so many states prioritizing the acquisition of new public lands. Many wish they could have as many public opportunities as Colorado.
Will It Continue?
That's the big question that state wildlife agencies around the country are likely asking themselves, and it's hard to predict what may happen. Colorado's growth in popularity for hunting may continue to grow, but only time will tell if this is just a product of the last few years or a sustained trend. Their population growth from seven years ago is seeming to slow and the economic factors currently drawing people to Colorado could always change at any moment. But one thing the state of Colorado will retain is its healthy big game herds and public land that gives hunting access to more people both in and out of state. Hopefully, with more people finding joy in the art of hunting, they will pass the custom down to new generations and we will have new hunters for the foreseeable future.