Colorado Outfitter Explains How Wildfires Have Drastically Affected Hunting Seasons

by Jennifer Shea
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Outdoor recreation business owners are facing an unprecedented crisis in Colorado as a result of changes in animal behavior.

Those changes have meant more difficult hunting conditions across the state, the Colorado Sun reports. It’s a perfect storm of three intertwined dynamics: a 100% statewide drought, land closures prompted by wildfires and a spike in outdoor recreation due to the pandemic.

Colorado Sees Changes in Animal Behavior

“We’ve definitely seen a lot of changes in the animals’ behaviors,” Earl Oesterling, owner of Ivory & Antler Outfitters, told the Sun. “I can’t tell you what that will do for future operations because in this business it’s all about the here and now… There’s too many uncontrollables.”

As just one example, in areas where it was common to see herds of 50 to 100 elk, people now find groups of five to 25 elk. That’s a result of the Cameron Peak Fire, which spanned over 200,000 acres, and which has drastically cut back land access in Jackson and Larimer counties. Animals fled. Hunting groups found themselves pressed closer together. 

Also, ranchers who had previously leased National Forest land for cattle grazing are now leasing private land instead. That may be due in part to the jump in foot and vehicle traffic on National Forest land, which is a symptom of lockdown fatigue among the public.

But that increase in outdoor recreation has brought its own hazards. Oesterling said he’s seen more campfires lately, in spite of the fire bans.

“Everyone wants to be up camping and have a campfire,” he told the Sun. “It’s very good for your soul and a lot of things, but to just ignore the mandates and the things that are out there is very dangerous.” 

Hunting and Fishing Affected

With smaller herds and crowded hunting conditions, Colorado Parks and Wildlife nonetheless made more hunting licenses available this year. It went up to 125,246 compared to 122,052 last year.

“They are selling more tags and not really focusing on anything but money,” hunter Jon Holbert said. “I don’t think the state is trying to benefit the animal. I think they’re trying to benefit their pocket.”

CPW has had to refund the cost of big-game hunting licenses this year. Hunters also have the option to take a voucher to roll over their unfilled tags to next season.

Hunting outfitters aren’t the only ones affected by the changes. Bernie Keefe, owner of Fishing with Bernie, told the Sun that he’s concerned about the long-term effects of the wildfires. The debris and runoff from the fires could fill local rivers and lakes, polluting waters and poisoning wildlife.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen, but it’s one of the things that’s on my mind,” Keefe said. “At the end of the day, it’s a wait and see game.”