By Randy Hampton
Special to The SUN
Colorado Parks and Wildlife is in the process of modernizing and streamlining the program that provides private landowners with a limited number of hunting licenses for the areas where they own property. With the support of a stakeholder committee that traveled the state for two years to hear from hunters, landowners, agricultural groups and others, the complex, legislatively mandated landowner preference program underwent changes last year as part of Senate Bill 13-188.
Private lands in Colorado play a critical role in keeping wildlife populations healthy and abundant. In fact, about 95 percent of the critical winter range for mule deer in the state is in private ownership. Many years ago, the Colorado General Assembly recognized that private landowners, especially those who own agricultural lands, maintain habitat and provide forage during winter months for large herds of deer, elk and pronghorn. The legislature worked with wildlife managers and landowners to develop the landowner preference program.
“The preference program provides tangible benefits to landowners and can increase the tolerance that private landowners have for big game animals,” explains Steve Znamenacek, a district wildlife manager who is overseeing implementation of the program changes for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “With landowners realizing a benefit from the big game herds on their property, they are more willing to improve habitat as well.”
While the original preference program had the intended positive effect and has allowed Colorado to maintain its standing as the top big game hunting destination in the nation, both landowners and sportsmen recognized that the program needed some adjustments to make sure that the program didn’t overly commercialize hunting in Colorado. Sportsmen approached Colorado Parks and Wildlife concerned with vouchers that were being sold for high dollars while landowners were closing their own lands to hunting. Landowners felt that the distribution model in the original legislation didn’t address the differences in land ownership across eastern and western Colorado. Hunting outfitters wanted to assure that any program changes didn’t affect the stability of their operations in the state.
“The landowner voucher committee included landowners, sportsmen and outfitters and it began meeting in 2009 to contemplate changes,” said Perry Will, area wildlife manager in Glenwood Springs and committee co-chair. “We knew that everyone wanted changes to the program, but we weren’t sure that we could find good middle ground for a compromise that would find support to pass the legislature.”
More than 20 meetings were held around the state and it took the stakeholder panel many more meetings to craft the recommendations that became Senate Bill 13-188. The bill allowed for increase in voucher distribution and also set limits on the use of vouchers off of the landowner’s property. In addition, landowners would have to undergo certification and review to show that they were in fact providing habitat for wildlife herds. With support from sportsmen’s groups, agricultural groups, outfitters and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the program changes were passed in May 2013.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff is now working on the complex programmatic and regulatory changes that will support the legislation.
“We will be revising the registration, monitoring and tracking systems, but the existing voucher allocation and distribution process will continue to be used in 2014,” said Znamenacek. “The new landowner registration system will come on line in July of this year and will be the first piece of the transition to the new system.”
An online process is being developed to ease landowner registrations and speed approvals while also building in a tracking system where wildlife managers will be able to verify property eligibility. The new system, administered under the new rules, will launch in July and will govern the distribution and oversight of vouchers beginning in 2015.
Landowners interested in the preference system can find more information at http://cpw.state.co.us/thingstodo/pages/landownerpreference.aspx.
A list of the changes to the current system can be found online, as well. More details about the implementation of the changes will be made available in summer of 2014. Enrolled landowners with questions about the program changes can contact their local district wildlife manager or CPW office.