In the spirit of today’s topic, let’s cut to the chase — Colorado has a hunting problem.

According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the state features 10 big game animals: Elk, moose, bear, mountain lions, mountain goats, Rocky Mountain and Desert bighorn sheep, pronghorn and two types of deer. It’s a diverse set of animals that makes it no wonder why Colorado is a top destination for hunters. Unfortunately, while many hunters follow the rules, far too many still don’t.

Hunters who refuse to play fair are a threat to us all. Not only do they worsen wildlife conservation efforts and put us all in danger, they are giving good hunters a bad name by discarding responsible hunting ethos. In my book, this most notably includes those who engage in lazy and unethical trophy hunting and poaching, particularly when cheap or blatantly illegal tactics like salt licks are used to secure the game.

As it turns out, public opinion suggests I am not alone in my disdain for trophy hunting and poaching of our state’s big game. While most Americans support utilitarian hunting, less than a third support trophy hunting. Here in Colorado, we have good reason to feel strongly about the issue — we’ve been harmed directly by one or both practices on countless occasions.

Perhaps the most infamous act of illegal trophy killing in the state was that of Samson the elk in 1995. Standing at an incredible 1,000 pounds with a rack of seven by nine points, Samson was a beloved local character in Estes Park. The poacher, Randal Francis, was ultimately caught and convicted in 1996 after immense public outcry. He received a library stack of punishments including 90 days in jail, a $6,000 fine, six years of probation, the loss of hunting and weapon privileges and loss of his driver’s license for two years for using a vehicle as part of the poaching.  

Yet while the enforcement of this well-known case might seem like a deterrent to others, research cited by CPW’s Operation Game Thief suggests otherwise. According to experts, it’s likely that poachers could be killing up to equal numbers of animals as compared to what’s legally permitted, making for a potentially staggering number of illegal takes per year.

Even worse, only an exceptionally small fraction of those poachers appear to be caught by state authorities. Per the website, CPW’s reported conviction rate is over 700 cases from citizen tips. That sounds great, except that number is spread across more than four decades, dating all the way back to 1981. So not only are most poachers going free, there are potentially tens of thousands of illegal wildlife kills per season of Colorado’s big game.

But it’s not only trophy hunting and illegal poaching that’s the problem. Research clearly indicates that Colorado’s hunting laws are not nearly strict enough for robust wildlife conservation. For example, CPW estimates it’s likely that about 75% of the female mountain lion population might be responsible for a kitten at any time, and that orphaned kittens under 6 months old have a survival rate of only 4%.

Yet CPW harvest reports reflect about 41% of all season 2022 mountain lion kills were female, despite training on gender identification, suggesting a high likelihood that hunters are still too often legally killing multiple lions through orphaning under one license.

In another shocking twist, after much cross referencing of websites, it appears that CPW openly collaborates with Colorado ranches that cater online to trophy hunting. One such example is the state’s Bighorn Sheep Access Program. This program partners directly with private landowners via negotiated contracts to secure bighorn sheep quotas while public licenses are only available through a draw process. These contracted ranches then go on to charge thousands of dollars per person — at times upwards of $10,000 or more — to openly and legally advertise trophy hunts on their private land. Seems a little fishy, right?

No doubt there are good hunters in the hunting community. But with stats like these it’s also clear that far too many hunters continue to chase cheap thrills over responsibility, and for the most part we let them. That should clearly change.

Yet I also can’t help but wonder how unethical hunting happens so widely in the first place. If the goal of killing big game is to feel a sense of pride from the mount on the wall, how is pride even possible if you’re not good enough at fair chase that you have to resort to cheating? And given the embarrassment this causes the hunting community at large, why aren’t more ethical hunters calling the phony ones out?

That would be something to be proud about.

Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado. Trish can be found on Twitter @trish_zornio

Trish Zornio

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Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado. Trish can be found on Twitter @trish_zornio