Local hunters see interest spike as people seek to get outside during pandemic

Colorado Parks & Wildlife big game draw applications up 7%

Justin Park, left, of Blue River and Trevor Plath pose for a celebratory photo after Plath harvested this bighorn sheep ewe on the last day of the season in the Collegiate Peaks last year.
Photo from Justin Park

SILVERTHORNE — On Thursday morning, Cameron Shrum sat up at 11,800 feet in elevation, six miles into a wilderness area on the border of Summit County. As the bowhunter and owner of C&K Archery in Blue River looked out over four basins without a soul in sight, he checked his phone to find eight voicemails and a bunch of unread social media messages for his services.

“We’ve been busy, for sure,” Shrum said. “I think people are not cramming everything into the last minute for hunting season. They’ve had more time at home, more time practicing in their backyard, planning and getting ready for the season.”

Throughout the novel coronavirus pandemic, public lands have seen increased crowds. And it seems demand has spiked for hunting across the state as some of the state’s most popular big game archery seasons began this past week.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton said the state agency received 649,351 big game draw applications this year. It’s an increase of nearly 7% compared to 2019, when the agency received 609,266 applications. Though applications don’t equate to the actual number of recreators who ultimately hunt on public and private lands, Hampton said parks and wildlife does expect hunting to see a jump in interest similar to the spike in popularity this summer for fishing.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Travis Duncan said state park visitation in July jumped 40% compared to the previous year — from 2.5 million to 3.5 million.

“Will 2020 be an amazing hunting year? I’d say ask me in November, but it looks like it’s headed that way because lots of people asked if they can get out there. The question is, will they get out there?” Hampton said. “Colorado makes it easier than any other state to get a license, so people are likely to come.”

Mark Holyoak, spokesman for the Montana-based Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, said he’s noticed a renewed interest in hunting this year. He said that’s because during the COVID-19 shutdowns more people have wanted to learn about where their food comes from and about harvesting large, long-term meat supplies. Holyoak said that interest is naturally going to point them in the direction of elk hunting in Colorado, because the state has the largest elk herds on the continent.

He said that could lead to increased demand for the state’s most popular licenses: over-the-counter bull elk tags for the second and third rifle season, which runs from Oct. 24 through Nov. 13.

Russ Lambert, the owner and operator of Colorado Outfitters, said the reality of COVID making it difficult for hunters to take fall trips to Canada has also inflated interest in Colorado. Lambert’s company operates several backcountry elk and deer hunts and camps in the Eagles Nest Wilderness area.

Lambert said even though COVID shut down spring trade shows that he and other guides usually lean on for fall business, his phone has been ringing continuously. He’s specifically hearing from interested hunters who are scrambling after they had to scratch trips to Canada.

Without the trade shows though, Lambert has had to screen hunters for physical fitness by phone — local backcountry hunts with mules and on horseback demand a lot.

Despite the increase in the overall Colorado Parks and Wildlife draw application numbers, Lambert said his company’s bookings for muzzleloader and first rifle season — tags not available over the counter that must be reserved via a draw — were affected by the uncertainty in spring. He said he thinks that’s because five months ago, when parks and wildlife was fielding applications, many hunters were unsure of what would actually be possible come fall. Those tags are now no longer available for hunters to purchase even though the fall hunting season is looking much more solid.

2020 Colorado Parks & Wildlife Big Game Seasons

Deer/elk (west of I-25 and Unit 140) – Sept. 2–30*
​Moose – Sept. 12-30
​Pronghorn (bucks only) – Aug. 15-31
​Pronghorn (either sex) – Sept. 1-20
Bear (over-the-counter and/or limited) – ​​Sept. 2–30

​​​​Deer/elk/moose – Sept. 12–20*
​Pronghorn – Sept. 21–29
​Bear (over-the-counter and/or limited) – Sept. 12–20

​Moose – Oct. 1–14
​Separate limited elk (1st season) – Oct. 10-14
​Combined deer/elk (2nd season) – Oct. 24-Nov. 1
Combined deer/elk ​(3rd season) – Nov. 7–13
​Combined limited deer/elk (4th season) – Nov. 18–22
Pronghorn (by draw only) – ​Oct. 3–11*
​Bear Sept. (over-the-counter and/or limited) – Sept. 2–30*
​Bear (1st season) (over-the-counter and/or limited) – Oct. 10–14
​​Bear (2nd season) (over-the-counter and/or limited) – Oct. 24–Nov. 1
​Bear (3rd season) (over-the-counter and/or limited) – Nov. 7–13
​​Bear (4th season) (over-the-counter and/or limited) – Nov. 18–22
​Bear Private-Land-Only (over-the-counter) – ​Sept. 2–Nov. 22*

*unless otherwise noted in the brochure tables

Overall Lambert said his company is not only fully booked, but they can’t meet the demand of the phone calls they’re receiving for guided trips during the first rifle season, prime hunting from Oct. 10-14.

“If (Parks and Wildlife) said, ‘Hey, Russ, here’s 20 tags for first rifle season, I could sell them,” Lambert said. “But I don’t have anything for (the callers).”

“We are hearing that from a lot of outfitters,” Hampton said. “‘My list is full. I got more people calling.’”

Hampton said guides like Lambert and Glenn Morse, the owner and operator of Gore Range Outfitters, are crucial to meet the public’s demand for ambitious wilderness hunts.

Morse said his company was negatively impacted for rifle season reservations because of COVID uncertainty during the spring draw. But he personally has seen an increase in demand for archery and muzzleloader season. That comes after his company saw an explosion in demand for its summertime horseback touring, which he said is half of his annual business. But he said because of coronavirus capacity regulations, they weren’t able to respond to meet the demand.

“We turned away thousands of people in eight weeks,” Morse said. “It was overwhelming.”

Ahead of a season-opening weekend bear bow-hunting trip to the Uncompahgre Plateau, lifelong hunter and outdoors writer Justin Park of Blue River said four different friends with little to no hunting experience have recently asked him about trying the sport this fall. He sees that, along with the crowds of trucks he’s seen parked along the highway between Vail Pass and Frisco, as a sign of new interest.

He just hopes the green hunters embrace patience and turn a sudden sporting fascination into a long-term hobby.

“Play the long game,” he said.

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