Division of Wildlife works to cultivate new generation of hunters | SummitDaily.com

Division of Wildlife works to cultivate new generation of hunters

JULIE SUTOR
summit daily news

SUMMIT COUNTY – There are some indications that the number of hunters and anglers in the U.S., including Colorado, is dropping. So the Colorado Division of Wildlife is developing creative new ways to cultivate interest in casting and blasting, with the most recent effort dubbed “Elk Hunting University” – an online hunter education course that demystifies big-game hunting for the novice.

Between 1996 and 2006, the number of people who hunted or fished in Colorado dropped from 830,000 to 660,000. Between 2001 and 2006, the number of hunters and anglers in the U.S. declined from 37.8 million to 33.9 million. Explanations for the drops include an aging Baby Boomer population, increased urbanization (and suburbanization) of American life and litigation concerns by rural ranchers who used to allow hunters on their private properties.

“We have moved from being a more rural society to being an urban one,” said Jim Bulger, hunting outreach coordinator for the Division of Wildlife. “People used to go out the back door to go hunting but a lot of those social dynamics have changed that.”

The Division finds downward trends in hunting and fishing worrisome for a couple reasons. First, wildlife managers depend on hunters to help keep populations of elk, deer and other wildlife in check, particularly for species whose natural predators (like wolves) were exterminated from the state a century ago. Also, when few white settlers roamed the Rockies more than 150 years ago, wildlife could move over hundreds of thousands of square miles of open range. But while wild critters still have room in Colorado, their frequent interface with humans, crops and development requires carefully developed management plans. The Division determines population goals for individual herds and issues an appropriate number of hunting licenses in an effort to achieve those targets.

Second, the Division of Wildlife is heavily dependent on the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. Fully 70 percent of the agency’s revenues come from license sales.

“We need the hunters and fishermen who purchase those licenses. We are not tax-based in this state, and as we lose license revenue, that affects our ability to conduct wildlife management programs,” Bulger said.

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The Division of Wildlife employs biologists, technicians and other staff for a wide variety of programs, including recovering endangered species, stopping the spread of invasive species, conducting public education, monitoring wildlife populations, resolving human-wildlife conflicts and protecting habitat. Without revenues from hunting and fishing, much of that work wouldn’t be possible.

So Bulger is working to draw newcomers to the sport, including women and children. The first challenge is to generate awareness. Colorado is one of the best states in which to hunt for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is its vast expanses of public land – an asset many states lack, particularly in the eastern U.S.

“This is truly a great place to live and be, because anybody can access a great amount of ground – more than you could walk in a whole lifetime. I think, we, as folks engaged in wildlife education, are tasked with helping people better understand the quality of resources available in this country, and in this state in particular. They are missing a great part of life if they don’t partake in that,” Bulger said.

Once that awareness is developed, Bulger and his colleagues must take it one step further and cultivate both interest and skills. Through an extensive outreach program, the Division conducts scores of free and low-cost clinics and workshops across the state. Shooting and fishing clinics dot the Division calendar, with sessions that provide individualized instruction for even the greenest of sportsmen and sportswomen.

“But we can only do that on a limited basis. It’s relatively one-on-one. I was looking at how we could expand the skills base without being tied to a class of just 50 people. I thought, what if we tried to model what a college does with an online education program?” Bulger said.

Thus was born Elk Hunting University (EHU), a step-by-step web-based guide filled with wapiti wisdom. The program went live in the spring. The Division’s huntmaster mentors, writers and photographers provide in-depth “how-to” articles, videos, photos and other resources to help hunters become more successful in their pursuit of Colorado’s most revered big game animal. Topics include prescouting, packing a backcountry pack, getting fit for hunting season,

“It’s not done necessarily from the research biologist side. I said, ‘Let’s just write it as guys and gals talking about our knowledge of hunting elk,” Bulger said.

Since EHU has been in session, it has drawn 175,000 visits and 215,000 page views and is turning out to be one of the most popular pages on the Division’s website. Bulger said he’s getting positive feedback from novices and veteran hunters alike.

“We obviously struck a cord with the general public so they can gain interest, awareness and skills. If 175,000 people are reading articles, a percentage is going to try this,” Bulger said.

That’s encouraging to Bulger from a professional standpoint, and it’s also gratifying on a personal level, since he’s sharing one of the greatest experiences of his own life.

“I find elk to be one of the most interesting game animals there are. I love to go out in spring, when the calves are new, to sit there and watch the kids playing in the water just like any other kids. Then there’s the majesty of watching bulls in the rut. I love this time of year when the bulls are coming out of velvet.

“It’s not about how big the antlers are. It’s about the critters themselves. And there ain’t nothing like a sunset on the side of a mountain, let me tell you.”

SDN reporter Julie Sutor can be reached at (970) 668-4630 or jsutor@summitdaily.com.