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Opposition grows to new Colorado rule requiring purchase of hunting, fishing license to access some public lands

A lawsuit and a group of hikers, climbers and paddlers are pressuring Colorado Parks and Wildlife to adjust the new rule, which applies to people who aren’t hunting and fishing.

The Ruby-Horsethief section of the Colorado River is accessed by a boat ramp in Loma, which is part of a State Wildlife Area. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)
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An animal rights group opposed to hunting has sued Colorado Parks and Wildlife over a new rule that requires visitors to buy a hunting or fishing license to access State Wildlife Areas and State Trust Lands. The lawsuit comes as a diverse group of users of state public lands — hikers, climbers and paddlers — urge Colorado Parks and Wildlife to delay implementation of the new licensing regulation. 

The license requirement imposed at the end of June fails to distinguish between residents and visitors who who buy licenses for hunting and fishing and people who might buy the license for non-consumptive uses of public lands like hiking, bird-watching, rafting and stand-up paddling, Friends of Animals argued in lawsuit filed Tuesday in Denver District Court.  

CPW passed the new regulation requiring hunting and fishing licenses to access the state’s 350-plus State Wildlife Areas and nearly 240 State Trust Lands in late April after seeing unintended uses on lands meant to protect wildlife. The new regulation comes as the agency sees increasing use by visitors who are not hunting or fishing on lands that are protected for wildlife conservation.  

(A fishing license costs $35 for residents and $97 for non-residents. All licenses, except one-day fishing and hunting permits, require a $10 habitat stamp. Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s annual state parks pass is not valid for accessing State Wildlife Areas.) 

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The agency, which is not supported by public tax dollars, also is tweaking its fee structure to offset project budget shortfalls as hunting and fishing license revenues decline. Revenue from hunting and fishing licenses was used to acquire many State Wildlife Areas and pay for access to State Trust Lands. 

Several recreation groups — including Colorado Mountain Club, Colorado Mountain Bike Association, American Whitewater and Great Old Broads for Wilderness — are urging the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to consider the new rule’s impact on recreation. In a letter to the commission, those groups noted how many State Wildlife Areas are popular for uses beyond hunting and fishing. The groups pointed to places like Bergen Peak in Jefferson County, Dome Rock next to Mueller State Park, the Loma Boat Launch in Fruita and the Buena Vista Whitewater Park as locations that now require users to be licensed to access. 

American Whitewater pointed out more than 60 popular river segments that pass through State Wildlife Areas. Colorado Mountain Club noted there are more than 20 popular hiking trails that overlap with State Wildlife Areas.

Access to open spaces — part of a statewide initiative called Colorado The Beautiful that connects residents with parks and trails — crosses State Wildlife Areas and requiring a license to cross those lands could limit access for underprivileged communities, Julie Mach, conservation director for the Colorado Mountain Club, said during the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission meeting on July 17

“There is, I think, a lot of confusion from the recreation standpoint on how CPW is treating these areas when it comes to non-consumptive recreation,” said Mach, whose group suggested possible exemptions from the licensing regulations for hikers and paddlers passing through these properties. 

Mach and others questioned the lack of public involvement in vetting the new regulation. 

“The decision feels a little bit rushed and kind of out of sync with some of the other discussions around funding for CPW,” said Mach, who asked for a delay in implementation so CPW could gather more public input. “It’s a little bit challenging and frustrating for groups that have tried to be involved in and want to be involved in this funding discussion.”

The recreation groups presented the commission with a list of recommendations that includes allowing through-traffic on trails and rivers, applying site-specific fees instead of a blanket license requirement, doing more public education before implementing, developing a plan for access for disadvantaged groups, adding a question on license applications about recreational activities and conducting an annual review of license sales to study shifting recreational uses on public lands. 

Commissioners declined to suspend the new regulation but plan to study the addition of a checkbox to hunting and fishing licenses that note a user purchased the license for conservation or non-consumptive use. 

CPW spokeswoman Rebecca Ferrell said the agency now has a mandatory question for buyers of small game hunting and/or fishing licenses that asks for a “reason for purchase.” 

“This will provide better data on each license purchaser’s intent, and allow us to more accurately account for those who are hunting and fishing and those who are not,” Ferrell said.

The commission also directed the agency’s staff to gather more information about users of State Wildlife Areas and will consider adjustments to the new regulation at its September meeting. 

The Friends of Animals lawsuit also suggests that CPW’s new rule could skew reports the state sends to the federal government. The number of hunting and fishing licenses sold in a state are one of the barometers used for the distribution of federal grants that help states manage wildlife habitat.  

“This suggests a willingness on CPW’s part to mislead federal wildlife aid programs by selling hunting and fishing licenses to non-hunters and non-fishers,” reads the lawsuit by Friends of Animals, a 63-year-old nonprofit that advocates for animal-friendly legislation. “Because the regulation could result in over-reporting, as well as potential fraud under the federal aid program, it should be set aside as arbitrary and capricious.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife Director Dan Prenzlow spoke at length during the Tuesday meeting, which included nearly two hours of discussion of the new rule. Prenzlow said he wanted to address “misperceptions” and “myth” surrounding the agency’s regulations for State Wildlife Areas, which are not state parks and were purchased for the sole purpose of conservation.

“License buyers bought the land and are maintaining the land and are paying for all — all — the conservation efforts that come through this agency,” Prenzlow said, explaining that the agency generates about $80 million through license sales, most of that collected from non-resident elk hunters. 

The new regulation helps the agency address the challenge of unpaid access to areas conserved with revenue from hunting and fishing licenses. State Wildlife Areas have limits on the type of uses and access by the public to protect wildlife habitat.

“We really cannot afford to have unfettered and unpaid use with the use that we are seeing,” Prenzlow said. 

Prenzlow said the agency is educating users regarding the new licensing regulation and has not begun ticketing visitors without licenses. He said paddlers floating through State Wildlife Areas do not need licenses if they stay in the water and users passing through on a public road inside a State Wildlife Area did not need a license if they don’t stop to access trails or use facilities. 

He said his staff was “glad to talk about” access to popular sites like the Loma Boat Ramp — a popular put-in for paddlers of the Ruby-Horsethief section of the Colorado River — and Dome Rock, which sees heavy hiker traffic. 

“We are for sure in the education mode and trying to bring people along as we make these decisions,” Prenzlow said.  

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