Although I revere all big game (and other) species, only Rocky Mountain elk can coax me out in the late fall freezing rain or swirling snow to hike and climb for miles in long-odds, over-the-counter (OTC) units where the chances of encountering other hunters generally eclipses those of seeing elk. Colorado’s OTC units are perhaps the most difficult elk hunts in the country, but the challenge only strengthens my resolve.
“Elk hunting is hard. Period. It doesn’t matter if you come West toting a bow, muzzleloader, crossbow, or rifle,” explains Jace Bauserman, former editor of Bowhunting World. “Downing a bull on public land in a unit where tags can be purchased at the local Walmart is as tough as it gets. A native of Colorado, I see the wapiti dreams of many blacktop burners become nightmares every fall.” Bottom line: OTC units are tough hunts with low odds.
I’ve learned the ropes of Colorado elk hunting, for better or worse, by only hunting OTC units, the School of Hard Knocks. Although I’m in awe of the dedicated elk (and other) hunters who accumulate preference points over years and patiently wait to draw a limited tag, then put in the time and effort to travel, scout and hunt new locales across Colorado or the country, I prefer to return to where I have some hard-earned familiarity with the terrain, which happens to be southwest Colorado’s high and wild San Juan Mountains.
The San Juans is where I shot my first elk, with some help from Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) founder David “Elkheart” Petersen. “The Rocky Mountain elk (C. e. nelson), also known as the Yellowstone elk, is the most plentiful and widespread North American wapiti race, ranging over virtually the entire north-south length of the Rockies through western Canada and the U.S.,” David explains in his book Racks. “This is the elk of its namesake Yellowstone National Park as well as my Colorado stomping grounds and is, in my mind, the classic ‘made in America’ model.”
“Most all of the best things in my life have happened by accident. It’s almost like I didn’t choose them; they chose me. And elk are certainly in that category,” David said in the short film “On The Wild Edge.” After six years in the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) during the Vietnam War, David met his wife, Caroline, and after months of traveling and exploring, they fell in love with a remote, lime-green stand of quacking aspens on a southwest Colorado mountainside. They bought the plot in 1980, built a small cabin, and David has been hunting in the surrounding mountains ever since.
David is a former USMC helicopter pilot and one of North America’s most renowned hunting ethicists and trad bow elk hunters. His writings (in part) inspired Mike Beagle to start BHA (in 2004). The documentary film, “On the Wild Edge: Hunting for A Natural Life,” about Elkheart’s life and love of hunting and all things wild is available on YouTube: https://youtu.be/-IE58L4bqEA. Also see: https://davidpetersenbooks.com/
As David stated in his Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) “5-year season plan comments,” submitted during February 2014, “… many research studies across the West, including here in Colorado, have shown for years that early season hunting pressure is pushing elk out of prime seasonal and traditional rutting habitat and into inaccessible ‘hell holes’ and, more worrisome, onto private lands, lower winter habitat, where their nutritional needs are harder to meet and most hunters can’t access them.”
License Distribution (& Other) Problems
Given our state’s generous (compared to every other western state) non-resident tag distribution we get BHA member inquiries from across the country asking for Colorado elk hunting advice. Unfortunately, elk numbers are alarmingly low in some areas and there have been multiple seasons when I haven’t seen a single elk. Perhaps it’s because everyone in Colorado seems to play on public lands, not to mention the unlimited tags sold to both resident and nonresident hunters in OTC units.
During August 2022 the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission (commission) participated in
a workshop covering various facets of how CPW distributes big game hunting licenses. As the workshop concluded, the commission requested that CPW staff provide additional information on the issues that big game hunters have raised with license distribution, recorded in “problem statements,” and alternatives for addressing the problems, including staff’s recommendations. Two primary problems were identified.
Problem #1: Resident opportunity. Resident hunters would like to draw more licenses. Resident hunters emphasize that nonresident hunters are allocated licenses at a significantly higher rate in Colorado than other western states.
Problem #2: Crowding. Big game hunters have concerns regarding increasing crowding in the early seasons—especially archery season—due to other hunters and other recreation user groups. Many resident hunters in particular feel that crowding from nonresident hunters in OTC archery elk units has become a major concern.
Unfortunately, solutions to resolve these problems are all dogged by the question of potential impacts on CPW revenue, not to mention outfitters’ bottom lines. As most Colorado elk hunters know well, the fee for a bull or either-sex elk license is $57.90 for residents and $700.98 for nonresidents. Hence, it’s common knowledge that a primary source of CPW’s reluctance to cut back on nonresident tags boils down to revenue.
Mesa County resident/hunter Brandon Siegfried said (in the 11/14/22 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel) that other Western states’ wildlife agencies seem to function fine without relying so much on the higher license fees paid by out-of-state hunters. “I want Colorado to take care of its resident hunters the way other Western states take care of their hunters, and I don’t think it’s happening,” he said.
Brandon says public land elk hunting pressure per acre in Colorado is three times the average for Western states. One example: Grand Mesa, home to what CPW calls the E-14 elk herd. “I quit hunting there years ago because it’s overhunted,” he added. CPW says the number of archery elk hunters for that herd has nearly doubled over the past decade, resulting in impacts such as reduced harvest success and changing elk distribution between public and private lands. “Sometimes it’s just a zoo up on the Grand Mesa,” Siegfried exclaimed.
Danielle Isenhart, CPW licensing section manager, said that statewide she thinks as many as 60% of over-the-counter archery elk licenses are now being purchased by nonresidents. In an August 2022 memo to the commission on licensing issues, Isenhart and other Parks and Wildlife staff said that limiting or capping over-the-counter archery elk licenses for nonresidents “could address both problems of resident opportunity and crowding.” CPW staff also recommended applying, as early as 2024, a 90-10 resident/nonresident split for high-demand licenses.
Siegfried wants an across-the-board 10% cap on limited licenses going to nonresidents. He reminded the commission that nearly all other western states allocate only 10% of big-game tags to nonresidents, which applies to all tags regardless of how long it takes to draw them. As frustrating as these first two problems may seem, they pale in comparison to a third conundrum, the elephant in the room.
Our big game populations in Colorado are experiencing dynamic challenges arising in part from a growing population of residents and visitors who recreate 365 days a year on public lands habitat. Habitat fragmentation and disruption by mountain bikers, ATV riders, backcountry skiers and hikers are all part of the equation.
“People move here for our outdoor opportunities. Climbers, hikers, bikers and skiers are everywhere in the mountains at all times of the year,” said Durango hunter Andrew Gulliford (in the 10/10/20 Durango Herald). “Elk, which are private animals preferring quiet meadows and south-facing winter hillsides, are constantly disturbed.”
An award-winning author/editor, Andrew is also a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. “No wonder in our region that there are only 20 elk calves that survive to adulthood born from 100 cow elk,” he added. “Statistically, at least half the calves should live, not a mere 20%. There is too much stress. Our advanced technologies for hunting and outdoor recreation mean that we are constantly in the backcountry. Elk have no respite.”
For a concise, scientific summary of the impacts of outdoor recreation on elk check out this September 2019 USDA report: “Seeking Ground Less Traveled: Elk Responses to Recreation.” In addition, a 2022 Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) report (“Outdoor Recreation and Elk: A Colorado Case Study”) details multiple factors negatively impacting elk herds across Colorado, including (in part):
- “When it comes to our public lands … about 40 percent of the most important elk habitat in Colorado is already impacted by motorized and non-motorized trail users.”
- “From 2012 to 2017, trail-based recreation in Colorado increased by 44 percent, and visitation to Colorado state parks and BLM lands jumped by more than 20 percent every year for the past few years.”
- “At the same time … the number of limited hunting licenses available for antlerless elk in Colorado is not even half of what it was 18 years ago, representing a loss of almost 70,000 cow elk tags.”
- “This is an attempt to stabilize the state’s elk herds, as elk cow-calf ratios have been declining for the last 20 years in much of the state, meaning our herds have lower success at producing and raising elk calves than they used to.”
- “These declines are due to several factors, but chief among them is habitat loss,” TRCP Colorado field representative Liz Rose explained. “As elk and other big game habitats are increasingly squeezed … what habitat remains is often fragmented by roads … fences, and recreational trails.” Studies investigating elk herds’ struggles to produce and raise offspring are ongoing in Colorado, and recreation-driven disturbance is one of the major focuses for researchers.
Similarly, as detailed in an August 2019 5280: The Denver Magazine article (“Are Trails in Colorado Harming Wildlife?” by Kelly Bastone), Courtney Larson, a Ph.D. student in ecology at Colorado State University, reviewed 274 studies performed on recreation and wildlife in a literature review that PLOS ONE published in 2016. In 93 percent of those papers, recreation had at least one effect on wildlife, and many of those effects (59 percent) were negative. Factors adversely impacting elk detailed by Bastone included (in part):
- “Some of the studies documented how increasing trail traffic may mean that animals spend most of their time avoiding humans rather than finding food, mating, or caring for young.”
- “One 2018 analysis published in Science found that at least 62 species are avoiding human contact by becoming more nocturnal—so when mountain bikers and runners don powerful headlamps and take to the dirt during summer’s coolest hours, we’re pursuing wildlife into their very last refuge: darkness.”
- “Scientists are just beginning to figure out what ‘better’ trails might look like. So far, research suggests that it’s best to concentrate trails in heavily trafficked areas and leave other areas untouched.”
- “Over the past 20 years, biologists with CPW have noticed significantly fewer calves among Eagle’s elk population, which is unpoetically named E16 and extends from Vail to Glenwood Canyon … district wildlife manager Craig Wescoatt started noticing that in July, when he’d expect to see calves trailing seven out of every 10 cow elk, he counted just three calves for every 10 mothers.”
- “‘Either they’re not hitting the ground, or they’re not living very long once they do,’ says Wescoatt, who’s lived and worked in the Eagle Valley for 35 years but has never seen a decline in reproduction rates like the one he’s witnessing now. He believes trail use is partly to blame.”
- “‘I do think that it’s death by a thousand cuts,’ Wescoatt says. ‘… outdoor recreation is definitely a factor. We’re seeing a lot more people out in the habitat that wildlife used to have to themselves.’”
Bastone observed that some Coloradans, especially those of us who have lived here for a while, have come to expect that we can recreate wherever we like, whenever we like. But we’ve already sliced up most of the land, and wildlife desperately needs the few remaining pockets of privacy to survive. “We all must prepare ourselves for more traffic on existing trails,” she added. “We may be growing in numbers, but that doesn’t mean trails can—or should—expand at the same rate.”
“And I now expect the recreation contingent to lead the way in wildlife conservation, even if that means accepting compromises to our favorite outdoor activities,” Bastone emphasized. “If I expect it from loggers, grazing operations, and energy developers—and I do—I should be willing to join the vanguard, too.”
During my 16 years of hunting elk in southwest Colorado’s OTC units I’ve grown accustomed to coming home emptyhanded more often than not. However, during two of the three most recent elk hunting seasons (and several others) I’ve managed to put meat in the freezer despite the long odds. And although I hope that trend continues, I’m not placing any bets.
“I have a buddy who is an elk ninja. He’s one of the best bowhunters I know, but when he first started hunting elk, it was 300 or bust. Guess what? He busted,” explained Jace Bauserman in a September 2021 Field & Stream article. “After putting down a few smaller bulls and finally killing a 370-inch monster in a draw unit, my buddy … had this advice for first-time elk hunters: ‘Go do you, but be sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. Any public land bull is a good bull … Be real about the types of bulls in your unit, and know that you won’t be the only hunter chasing these elk.’”
1.) Colorado Parks and Wildlife & USDA Resources
- Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). “License Distribution Problem Statements and Alternatives.” CPW: 8/25/22.
- Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). “License Distribution Public Involvement–Process Update Proposal.” CPW Commission: 7/7/22.
- Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). “Big Game License Distribution Public Process Fall 2021- Fall 2022: Frequently Asked Questions.” CPW: Updated 4/6/22.
- Sylvia Kantor. “Seeking Ground Less Traveled: Elk Responses to Recreation.” Science Findings #219 (U.S. Department of Agriculture-Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station): September 2019. https://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/sciencef/scifi219.pdf
2.) Colorado BHA Resources
- “Colorado Over The Counter (OTC) Unit Elk Hunting.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 11/14/22.
- Brien Webster. “CO BHA Comments on Potential (Tag) Allocation Changes.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 10/7/22.
- “Colorado BHA Tag Allocation Observations & Information.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 7/20/22.
- “Hunting Educated Mountain Merriam’s And Elk Herd/Hunting Trends (& Cinco de Mayo).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 5/5/22.
- “Reward For Illegal Trail Construction Offered By Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 1/31/22.
- “Trails vs. Elk: ‘They’re Just Dying Off.’” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 12/3/21.
3.) Other Resources
- Dennis Webb. “Hunting for a solution: CPW looks for balance in allocating in-state, out-of-state licenses.” Grand Junction (Colo.) Daily Sentinel: 11/14/22.
- Liz Rose. “Improving Management Where Big Game and Recreation Overlap on Public Land.” Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership: 10/27/22.
- Kelly Bastone. “Are Trails in Colorado Harming Wildlife?” 5280: The Denver Magazine: August 2019.
4.) Armed Forces Initiative (AFI)
- BHA’s Armed Forces Initiative. “Armed Forces Initiative-Get Involved.”
- Become An AFI Volunteer; Armed Forces Initiative Leadership.
- David A. Lien. “Armed Forces Initiative Helps Veterans Hunt … And More.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 8/17/22.
- David “Elkheart” Petersen (a former U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot) started the first BHA state chapter in Colorado. As previously mentioned, a documentary film, “On the Wild Edge: Hunting for A Natural Life,” about his life and love of hunting and all things wild is available on YouTube: https://youtu.be/-IE58L4bqEA. Also see: https://davidpetersenbooks.com/
 Currently, OTC licenses are not restricted in quantity but are restricted to certain game management units, seasons, and manners of take. They are available for purchase without going through the draw and do not use preference points.
 David Petersen. Racks: A Natural History of Antlers and the Animals that Wear Them. Durango, Colorado: Raven’s Eye Press, 1991, p. 44.
 Sam Lungren. “David Petersen and ‘On The Wild Edge’ Film.” Backcountry Journal: Fall 2016, p.14.
 Sylvia Kantor. “Seeking Ground Less Traveled: Elk Responses to Recreation.” Science Findings #219 (U.S. Department of Agriculture-Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station): September 2019. https://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/sciencef/scifi219.pdf