The “good ol’ days” were tough on Colorado’s wildlife.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, trout, deer, elk, bighorn sheep, wild turkey and many other wildlife species were nearly wiped out from Colorado due to human settlement activities and market hunting. Restaurants in the eastern United States served a “Taste of the West” with such dishes as prairie chicken consommé and roasted leg of elk. Market hunters earned $1.25 for a pair of mallards and up to $50 for a bison hide at a time when laborers were lucky to earn a dollar a day.
In 1897, Colorado’s Legislature created the Department of Forestry, Game and Fish, the predecessor to Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Early wildlife management efforts focused on stopping unregulated fishing and hunting for commercial markets. As wildlife recovered, the state opened restricted seasons. The agency sold licenses to hunt and fish, generating revenue that was used to manage wildlife populations. It’s a user-pay model that continues today. Hunters and anglers pay the bill for nearly all wildlife management and conservation activities. Today, 75 percent of funding for wildlife programs comes from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. There are 960 species of wildlife in Colorado, and they thrive, thanks to the work of wildlife managers and biologists, the stewardship of private landowners and the support of hunters, anglers and other wildlife enthusiasts.
So, you’re probably wondering, “How do hunting and fishing contribute to wildlife science and management?”
Wildlife needs quality habitat — food, water and shelter — year round. Sometimes certain species can become too abundant and impact habitat in ways that can negatively affect other species. Finding the right balance between animal populations and their habitats affects the entire landscape. Hunting is an important tool used to manage wildlife populations.
For example, when mule deer populations are out of balance with their habitat, the deer become malnourished. Stunted shrubs may show a “browse line,” indicating that too many animals are eating the plants. Other wildlife sharing that habitat, such as songbirds, small mammals and raptors, also suffer when habitat quality declines.
When the number of animals exceeds what the range can support, animals may starve or become more susceptible to diseases, weather or predation as they compete for limited resources. In Colorado, the productivity and availability of our winter range is critical for most wildlife species.
Biologists also must consider social factors; in other words, how many animals — specifically big game — the public is willing to tolerate.
So, we use a powerful management tool for keeping wildlife populations in balance with winter habitat: human predation, otherwise known as hunting.
Through harvest, biologists can manage wildlife populations. In overpopulated areas, for example, harvest of female animals is increased.
The results: The range is in better shape which sustains wildlife populations; hunters get a high-quality experience; society views wildlife as an asset rather than a problem; and improved habitat helps a variety of other species
Anglers also play an essential role in maintaining fishery resources. Aquatic biologists use information provided by anglers and a variety of tools to manage fish populations, including fish stocking, habitat improvements and fishing regulations. For all aquatic species, bag and possession limits are crucial for helping to nurture and maintain wild fish populations.
Colorado’s reservoirs, while not natural systems, sustain a variety of warm and cold water fish — walleye, lake trout, bass and others. Under or overharvesting certain species or a certain age-classes of fish can affect a reservoir system.
Natural reproduction of trout in rivers and streams throughout the state varies according to water quality. Brown trout and brook trout are tolerant of lower-quality water and usually reproduce well, although some are stocked. Rainbow trout, which were decimated by whirling disease, are still stocked. A whirling-disease resistant strain of rainbows is showing promise in some rivers.
A special effort by wildlife managers is the restoration of native trout. Cutthroat trout were nearly wiped out and they struggle in waters where they must compete with browns, brooks and rainbows — all non-native species. Consequently, biologists have been working for more than 40 years to re-establish native cutthroat trout populations. In some high-country streams, biologists are isolating suitable habitats and cutthroats are reproducing naturally. Restoration of native trout species is on a successful track.
Hunters and anglers are also crucial to wildlife management because of the information they provide. Data gathered by wildlife managers is used for research, education, census, distribution, habitat and reintroduction projects.
On-going efforts on non-game, including endangered wildlife species, use techniques perfected by years of research on game species. But, don’t think that hunting and fishing support science related solely to wildlife. People also benefit from wildlife-related research. For example, last year a human health threat — avian influenza (H1N1) — was monitored in part by swabs taken from wild ducks harvested by hunters.
It’s easy to overlook the many ways in which hunting and fishing sustain Colorado wildlife. Protecting, preserving and enhancing Colorado’s wildlife populations have been job one for our agency since its inception — and Colorado’s hunters and anglers have been with us every step of the way. Thanks to the commitment of the sportsmen and sportswomen, for wildlife lovers, these really are the good old days.
Before going big game hunting, be sure to do some scouting. Walking in your hunting area will also help you get in shape.
Leigh Gillette is the education coordinator in the southwest region for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.