Colorado boasts one of the most diverse and abundant wildlife populations in North America, with an astonishing 960 wildlife species. However, it wasn’t always this way. Many of the state’s most cherished and iconic species thrive today only because of species conservation and wildlife reintroduction programs, paid for by hunting and fishing license fees. Click here to learn more.
Nearly 20 years ago, Colorado Parks and Wildlife launched what was to become one of the most ambitious and high-profile wildlife reintroductions in state history. Known as the Colorado Lynx Reintroduction Program, CPW set out to re-establish wild lynx—a species which was extirpated (no longer found in Colorado) by the late 1970s. Because of Colorado’s isolation to the nearest lynx populations in Montana and northern Wyoming, reintroduction seemed to be the only viable option to return lynx to Colorado. So in 1999 cats captured in Canada and Alaska were released into the remote San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado. In a seven-year period, we introduced 218 of the Canuck cats, monitoring radio- and satellite-collared lynx as they slowly established breeding populations in the San Juans and expanded their range into Summit County and other parts of Colorado’s high country. Based on breeding surveys, monitoring results, and meeting the program’s original goals, CPW declared the Lynx reintroduction a success in 2010. Today, an estimated 150-250 of the tufted-eared cats now roam Colorado’s backcountry.
The beautiful and vibrant cutthroat trout gets its name from the red slash under its jaw. The cutthroat’s medley of colors and spots make it one of the most cherished fish among Colorado anglers. Colorado is home to three subspecies of native cutthroat: the Rio Grande, Colorado River and the renowned Greenback, which was designated Colorado’s state fish in 1994. But, despite its iconic stature, the plight of the cutthroat has been both challenging and uncertain. For decades, cutthroat trout populations have declined throughout the western United States. Working with a consortium of state and federal wildlife agencies, Trout Unlimited and other conservation groups, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) has developed an aggressive conservation strategy to help restore native cutthroat populations. A key component of cutthroat conservation is egg-collection, hatchery and stocking programs. In 2015, CPW stocked 1.6 million cutthroat trout into more than 400 lakes, rivers and streams throughout the state. Fishery biologists are hopeful that continued stocking will bolster Colorado’s cutthroat populations and ensure their sustainability. These programs are funded in large part by hunting and fishing license fees (not tax dollars).
The boreal toad is Colorado’s only alpine species of toad, inhabiting lakes, marshes and ponds at elevations between 8,000- 12,000 feet. Formerly widespread and common, the small toads are now extremely scarce. Because of declining populations, Colorado listed the boreal toad as a state endangered species in 1993. In the past two decades, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) has devoted significant resources to determine why the toads have declined and to explore viable options for recovery. Biologists now know that the chytrid fungus, a pathogen that causes a fatal skin disease in amphibians, is the primary reason for the boreal toad’s sharp decline.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Native Aquatic Species Restoration Facility (NASRF) has played a critical role in efforts to restore boreal toads to Colorado ecosystems. The NASRF has raised 133,546 tadpoles, toadlets and adult toads, which CPW biologists have translocated to help reestablish boreal toads in their historical habitat. The greatest obstacle for biologists, however, is locating suitable habitat that is unaffected by the chytrid fungus. In 2014, biologists documented a breeding population of boreal toads near Cameron Pass—the first translocation effort that has resulted in known recruitment and natural reproduction. CPW biologists are hopeful that future translocations will establish additional breeding sites throughout the state.
Without funds from hunting and fishing license sales programs such as these would not exist.
The black-footed ferret is one of the most endangered mammals in North America. A member of the weasel family, the black-footed ferret sharply declined throughout the 20th century because of sylvatic plague and decreases in prairie dog populations—the ferret’s primary food source. Biologists declared the species extinct in 1979, until a small colony of ferrets was discovered on a private ranch in Meeteetse, Wyoming in 1981. From this tiny population (18 ferrets), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) developed a successful captive-breeding and reintroduction program to help reestablish wild ferret populations in the western U.S. Since then, the USFWS and state wildlife agencies have released ferrets in eight western states, and an estimated 200-300 ferrets now live in the wild.
In 2013, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) launched an ambitious reintroduction program to return black-footed ferrets to Colorado. Since the program’s inception, CPW has released 300 ferrets at six different sites in Larimer, Adams, Pueblo, Baca and Prowers counties. Most of the ferrets were acquired from the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center (FCC) in Larimer County. Here, the captive-raised animals learn the skills necessary to hunt and survive on their own. Once the ferrets have demonstrated independence, they are released into the wild. Although Colorado’s reintroduction program is still in its infancy, wildlife biologists are optimistic about the ferret’s plight. Surveys indicate that ferrets remain at all six release sites with successful breeding documented at two locations. In the next few years, CPW biologists intend to release ferrets at additional sites with the hopes of establishing self-sustaining populations. Because four of the six release sites are located on private property, CPW has worked cooperatively with private landowners, the Colorado Cattleman’s Association and the city of Fort Collins on Colorado’s Black-Footed Ferret Reintroduction Program. CPW programs are not supported by tax dollars. 70% of the funding comes from the sale of Colorado hunting and fishing licenses.
Weighing up to 1000 pounds and towering at more than 6 feet at the shoulder, the Shiras moose is Colorado’s largest big-game animal. In addition to its massive size, the moose is also one of Colorado’s biggest conservation success stories. While common today, the Shiras moose was quite rare in Colorado throughout most of the 20th century. Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) biologists believed that the only way to establish a self-sustaining moose population in Colorado was to transplant animals from neighboring states. In 1978, CPW conducted the first transplant of 24 moose from Utah and Wyoming to Colorado’s North Park region near Walden. Over the next three decades, biologists released more than 200 additional animals from Wyoming and Utah to the Grand Mesa and other areas of the state. Today, Colorado is home to more than 2,400 moose and boasts one of the fastest growing populations in the lower 48 states. In fact, the animals are doing so well that moose are vamoosing the mountain parks where they were originally introduced and are expanding into new territories. In recent years, moose have even ventured into Front Range suburbs. Although a favorite viewing animal among Colorado residents and tourists alike, moose are extremely unpredictable and dangerous, and they will charge aggressively if disturbed or threatened. CPW has increased hunting licenses in recent years to help manage growing populations, offering moose hunting in 57 game management units throughout Colorado.
Living in Colorado, it’s easy to take for granted our enormous elk herds. After all, Colorado is home to more than 280,000 animals—the largest elk population in the world. But did you know that elk were near extinction at the turn of the century? In the early 1900s, only 40,000 elk remained in all of North America. The elk’s dramatic demise was attributed to unregulated market-hunting. In 1916, Colorado imported 50 elk from Wyoming to reestablish dwindling herds. The elk were transported and released in Idaho Springs and in the Greenhorn Mountains in Pueblo County. From these meager transplants, and through decades of trapping and relocation efforts by wildlife managers, elk populations have soared to the abundant herds for which Colorado is now famous. Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), in cooperation with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and other sportsmen’s groups, continues to conduct research, protect key winter range and migration corridors and improve statewide habitat to ensure Colorado’s elk herds remain abundant for future generations. Fees from hunting and fishing licenses help to staff and operate these reintroduction programs.
Majestic and agile, the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep is a prominent figure on the steep and jagged walls of Colorado’s canyons. But, despite its prominence and grandeur, the bighorn was near extinction at the turn of the century. Diseases introduced through European livestock and overhunting had decimated populations throughout the West, and only a small number of the native sheep remained in Colorado in the early 1900s.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), in cooperation with the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society, has spent decades rebuilding sheep populations through aggressive trapping and relocation efforts. CPW conducted the first sheep transplants in the 1940s, including planting bighorns between Georgetown and Silver Plume. Known simply as the “Georgetown Herd,” this population of 250-350 sheep is one of the largest herds in the state and has become one of the most popular sheep viewing sites in the nation. Since Colorado’s restoration efforts began, CPW has completed more than 100 bighorn sheep transplants, most of which took place in the 1970s and 1980s. Recent transplants include Gore Canyon in northwest Colorado. CPW closely monitors bighorn sheep herds and maintains healthy populations through controlled hunting and ongoing trapping and relocation. Thanks to decades of dedicated conservation efforts, Colorado’s iconic bighorn sheep are once again abundant with an estimated statewide population of 7,000 animals.
The Great sage grouse and the Gunnison sage grouse are iconic species in Colorado. Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) biologists are working to improve habitat to help the population of these species. This video explains how CPW is working in cooperation with private landowners and other conservation partners on projects to improve and restore “wet meadows” which are very important for Gunnison sage grouse.
The black bear is Colorado’s only bear species and is the state’s largest carnivore. Despite their name, black bears can be honey-colored, blonde, brown, cinnamon or black. Black bears are not normally aggressive and usually avoid contact with people. However, when natural food sources are scarce, bears become increasingly mobile in search of human-associated food sources, such as trash, fruit trees, pet food and livestock. As bears prepare for winter hibernation, they consume up to 20,000 calories per day. (That’s comparable to a person eating 40 Big Mac hamburgers.)
Within the last several decades, an increasing number of human/black bear encounters has generated alarm and media headlines. Because of their size, Colorado’s black bears have no significant predators in the wild, except for other, larger bears. Therefore, hunting is the primary management tool Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) and other wildlife management agencies use to regulate populations. Due to increased human/bear conflicts, CPW has allocated additional hunting licenses in recent years with the objective of reducing or stabilizing local bear populations in some areas. Because CPW does not receive general tax dollars to fund its wildlife management efforts, all black bear management programs are paid for by sportsmen through hunting license and Habitat Stamp sales.
The mountain lion (also called puma, cougar, panther or catamount) is Colorado’s largest cat. Known for its excellent hunting skills, the mountain lion’s extreme agility, acute vision and adaptability make it the perfect predator. With its powerful limbs, they can leap as far as 40 feet and can run up to 50 mph. Mountain lions primarily feed on deer but will also prey on elk, bighorn sheep, moose and pronghorn. As opportunistic feeders, they will attack domestic pets and livestock, small mammals and occasionally eat carrion (animal carcasses).
Long considered a threat to livestock and public safety, mountain lions were subject to indiscriminate killing for most of the 20th century. But as lion numbers dwindled, Colorado sought to protect the species and increase statewide populations. In 1965, lions were classified as big-game animals, giving them protection with hunting seasons and harvest limits. Today, Colorado’s mountain lions are thriving, with an estimated population between 4,500-5,500 living in the state. Because the large cats have no natural predators in the wild, hunting is the primary means of balancing statewide mountain lion numbers in concert with the state’s big-game herds and growing human populations.
While mountain lions are not endangered, their hunts are among the most closely regulated and controlled in Colorado. Trophy hunting is illegal, and all hunters are required to submit harvested mountain lions to Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) for inspection to help biologists better understand lion health and distribution throughout the state. In recent years, CPW has launched comprehensive mountain lion studies on Colorado’s Front Range and Western Slope. Using animals fitted with GPS collars, wildlife biologists are studying mountain lion population dynamics and habitat use, and are closely tracking human/lion interactions, among other factors. CPW does not receive general tax dollars to fund its wildlife management programs. Hunters pay for all mountain lion research.
Colorado’s fish and wildlife are thriving only because of conservation science, fueled by hunting and fishing in our state, and the fees associated with it.
Written by Jerry Neal. Neal is the editor for Colorado Outdoors Online and is a media specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.