The woods around Aspen will soon be filled with neon vests and camouflage, and the sound of gunshots will ring from the Maroon Bells to Mount Sopris and beyond — rifle season begins this week.
The first of four seasons for rifle hunters begins Saturday and runs through Nov. 18, when thousands of sportsmen and women hit the high country terrain surrounding the Roaring Fork Valley and the entire northwest region of Colorado, commonly referred to as the state’s “meat locker” because of its abundant elk herd population.
Hunting in the state is a more than billion-dollar-a-year industry, generating millions of dollars in revenue for local communities and hundreds of jobs.
“It’s second to skiing and tourism,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) spokesman Mike Porras. “Not only does it provide revenue to the agency but communities depend almost entirely on hunting for their livelihood; it’s like the ski season for them.”
In 2007, the most recent CPW data available, more than $24.8 million was spent as a result of the hunting and fishing industry in Pitkin County. That includes recreational trip and equipment expenditures, as well as secondary spending by businesses and households. Those numbers are referenced in a study done by Boulder-based BBC Research & Consulting that was released in 2008. The CPW plans to update the study in the near future to determine where Colorado is with its hunting activity, Porras said.
However, he did point to a decline in hunting licenses in recent years, which can be attributed to the agency meeting particular animal population objectives in certain areas, as well as the effects of the Great Recession.
Steve Kossler, co-owner of Homestead Market in downtown Paonia, said his butchering business has seen a slight decline and he relies heavily on the hunting industry.
“It’s a big time of year,” he said, adding that in Paonia, liquor stores, gas stations and restaurants are teeming with hunters during the season.
The mom-and-pop butcher shop is open from August to January, and Kossler staffs up during the height of the season. They’ll process animals — last year they butchered 530 of them — based on customers’ requests. That could be in the form of steaks, sausage or hamburger.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the average hunter spent $2,484 in 2011 on the sport. In Colorado, non-resident big game hunters spend an estimated $216 per day during their trip, according to the CPW.
Big game, big money
In the Rocky Mountains, a week-long hunting excursion means not only bringing your big-boy pants, but also a big wallet, especially if one plans to use an outfitter to help navigate the backcountry and get assistance in bagging an elk.
Ian McLendon, co-owner of Indpendence Pass Outfitting Co., likened the cost and effort of a week-long hunt in the Rockies to that of a helicopter skiing trip elsewhere.
“This is sort of an affluent sport,” he said. “Those people spend money; hundreds of millions of dollars in the state of Colorado.”
His outfitting company charges $6,000 per person for a five- to seven-day fully guided hunting trip in one of three areas it has a permit to operate — Indpendence Pass, Lincoln Creek and in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area.
That price includes the outfitter setting up camp several miles deep into the forest, complete with a wood-burning stove, chopped wood, food, supplies, tents, cooks and guides who will help customers harvest their animals. A camp of that caliber requires five to six trips in advance of the hunt, with just as many animals in the pack string carrying equipment and supplies three hours into the backcountry.
Having an outfitter certainly increases a hunter’s chances of bagging an animal, but hunting in the backcountry is no small feat and there are no guarantees.
“When you kill an animal in Colorado, it’s a big deal because it’s extremely difficult,” McLendon said. “That’s why it’s called hunting and not killing.
“This is as hard as it gets.”
Hunting for the experience
McLendon said he has a 90 percent success rate in taking clients on a successful hunt, adding that guides help take the guesswork out of it. And while there are no guarantees, it’s not all about bagging an animal anyway.
“Hunting takes you to the most primitive experience,” he said. “Killing the animals is secondary to the experience. ... You completely decompress, and while it’s mentally and physically demanding, it’s also cathartic.
“You get a sense of what it was like to live over 100 years ago,” McLendon added. “You find out what you’re made of. … It’s a life-changing experience.”
Toby Sicks, a Kansas City, Mo. resident, spent 10 days in the woods near McClure Pass with three other men last month during archery season. He estimates that each of them spent between $1,500 and $1,700 on the trip, and they did the hunt by themselves — with no outfitter. He said they did their shopping in Carbondale.
Stan Irsik, Sicks’ father-in-law, has been coming to the area for the past 14 years and has his own mules.
Sicks, a sniper with the Kansas City SWAT team, is the only one in the group that killed an elk cow, despite being the youngest guy on the trip. They butchered it themselves and took it out of the woods using a mule.
Sicks said while the non-resident license is expensive, it’s worth it because of the experience. His elk bow season license cost $351, while an in-state resident would pay $46 for the same tag.
“It’s really about getting up into the mountains. ... The terrain in that area is great,” he said. “It’s fun and it’s a challenge.”
Missouri resident Mike Allgood agreed and said, “It’s more about hunting and camping than about the killing.”
McLendon said often times hunters get a bad rap, particularly from those who are uneducated about animal populations and food production. He said when he encounters young people who live in cities, some of them can’t answer the question of where their meat comes from, other than the grocery store.
McLendon, who has been hunting for 20 years, said he believes the sport is becoming a lost art. It isn’t being passed down to younger generations, and fewer people learn the skills of gutting, skinning and capping an animal, or saddling and packing a horse.
A license to kill
The slow economy, quota reductions, changes in regulations and the CPW’s efforts to recruit and retain big game hunters in the state played a role in demand and sales in recent years.
Porras, with the CPW, said while a recent survey from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggests that hunting as an industry has increased 9 percent nationwide, Colorado isn’t experiencing that.
The number of license holders in Colorado has slowly been on the decline in recent years. In 2000, there were 337,475 licenses issued in the state; in 2010, there were 286,363.
“We welcome that news [from the fish and wildlife service] but at the same time, we are looking at our participation and our state, and we don’t see that as the case,” Porras said. “We are trying to change that.”
CPW is engaging in outreach programs to lure novices, women and younger people into the sport. Hunting and fishing licenses are the main source of revenue for the CPW, and without it, the agency wouldn’t be able to manage the state’s wildlife programs and populations, Porras said.
In 2010, the CPW brought in $45.6 million in big game license revenue.
“Without our sportsmen, our management of wildlife would be very difficult,” Porras said.
Perry Will, area wildlife manager for the CPW, said hunters are the primary supporters of wildlife conservation.
“We welcome hunters,” he said.”They put their money where their mouth is.”
Porras said one of the reasons Colorado has experienced a decline in hunting licenses is because certain areas of the state, identified as “game units,” have likely met their wildlife population objectives, which are set by the CPW. So, if a particular unit had a dense population of elk, more licenses were issued. Once the CPW meets its objective, fewer licenses are made available for that area.
The CPW and wildlife managers like Will look at habitat and populations in regions of the state and then establish what are called “data analysis units,” which are used to classify a herd. CPW determines the number of licenses made available to hunters based on what’s seen as desirable populations for different herds.
“In most cases, wildlife management boils down to managing that population,” Porras said. “Any kind of hunting is one of the most effective tools in managing wildlife.”
Colorado has the largest elk population in North America, and those licenses can be bought over the counter.
“The goal is to take 10 percent of the females each year to maintain the population,” Will said.
McLendon said he enjoys elk hunting the most because they speak a language and humans play on that in order to lure them.
“It’s a 50-50 shot that they’ll come in to mate or fight,” he said. “It’s an unbelievable feeling to call an animal. … It’s really intense.”
Hunting other species, like deer, whose populations aren’t as robust, requires entering a lottery system to obtain a license.
“Some units are managed by quality and some are managed for quantity,” Will said.
Licenses for mountain lions can be purchased over the counter but there is a quota on how many can be killed. It’s the hunter’s responsibility to know whether the quota has been met in a particular area for a specific species, Will said.
The number of bear licenses available for “Area 8,” which includes the Roaring Fork Valley, have increased by 405 this year, as the population has grown, Will said. He added that over 1,000 bear licenses will be issued for the area this year.
McLendon last week took a client a on bear hunt up Independence Pass, but was unable to bag one. Bear hunting is difficult and requires knowing where previous kills have occurred (Colorado allows hunters to leave the ribs and organs of their gutted animals). Bears are attracted to the remains; hunters commonly refer to it as “sitting on a gut pile.”
Licenses for in-state residents are far less expensive than non-resident, but Colorado is considered to be on the low end of the price spectrum, especially considering the terrain, surroundings and solitude the backcountry provides.
“For what they get, that’s quite a bargain,” Porras said. “It’s the opportunity of a lifetime.”