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Lawsuit targets new Colorado Parks and Wildlife regulations for State Wildlife Areas

Animal advocacy groups argue the new regulations for more than 350 State Wildlife Areas offer special treatment for hunters and anglers with increased prohibitions on non-wildlife related recreation
The Ruby-Horsethief section of the Colorado River is accessed by a boat ramp in Loma, which is part of a State Wildlife Area. (Jason Blevins/The Colorado Sun)

A coalition of animal advocacy groups has sued Colorado Parks and Wildlife over new rules at State Wildlife Areas that restrict recreation by visitors who are not hunting or fishing.

The lawsuit argues new regulations adopted in August by Colorado Parks and Wildlife commissioners for the 350 State Wildlife Areas offer preferential treatment for hunters and anglers. For example, the new rules prohibit bikes but allow carts for hunters hauling wildlife. The new rules do not allow dogs, except for hunting dogs. Boaters cannot paddle kayaks, paddle boards or rafts unless they are fishing or hunting. The new regulations prohibit motorized travel in most locations but allow hunters to use ATVs and snowmobiles in select State Wildlife Areas. Horseback riders cannot access several State Wildlife Areas unless they are hunting.

“These numerous exceptions for hunting and fishing to otherwise prohibited activities is arbitrary and capricious and conflicts with the ‘multiple-use’ concept of management,” reads the lawsuit filed earlier this month in Denver District Court by Friends of Animals. “CPW has no evidence that the wildlife-related recreational activities that the regulations restrict or ban have a different impact on SWAs than the same activities done by people who are hunting or fishing, which the regulations make exceptions for.”

Up until two years ago, all State Wildlife Areas were paid for and maintained using revenue from hunting and fishing licenses “for the purpose of conserving wildlife habitat and providing wildlife-related recreation.” Seven years ago the agency began noticing increases in recreation at State Wildlife Areas from visitors who were not hunting and angling. In 2019, wildlife managers began studying the negative impacts from the increased recreational visitation and formed a task force that helped draft new rules to better protect wildlife habitat and wildlife-related recreation at the areas.

State Wildlife Areas are leased or purchased with federal funds collected from hunters and anglers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could take over management of the properties if the federal government finds the state has “lost control” of a property by allowing uses that do not align with wildlife recreation or habitat.

The Colorado Attorney General’s Office last week filed a response to the lawsuit, denying most of the claims in brief legal language.

“CPW admits the regulations speak for themselves, they impose restrictions on people who visit hundreds of SWAs, and they contain various restrictions, some of which turn on whether the visitor is, among other things, actively hunting or fishing,” reads a portion of the state’s response that is repeated many times.

2020 lawsuit targeted requirement for hunting, fishing licenses

Friends of Animals sued Colorado Parks and Wildlife in 2020 over new rules that required everyone accessing State Wildlife Areas to have a state hunting or fishing license. The agency said the new requirement was due to “a significant trend of people engaging in activities for which these properties were not intended.”

The lawsuit said the agency did not provide any analysis showing how the license requirement would prevent unintended uses or how the agency planned to enforce the license requirement when it could not enforce rules preventing unintended uses of the State Wildlife Areas.

“There is simply no rational connection between a new licensing requirement and the reduction of illegal/improper use of these public lands,” read the 2020 lawsuit.

Noting that hunting and fishing license sales fell 10% between 1990 and 2020, the Friends of Animals lawsuit group suggested the new rule was simply a way to generate more revenue.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife responded to concerns about the new license-access complaints by creating a State Wildlife Area Pass in 2021, which allows public access to the state’s 350-plus wildlife areas without the need for a hunting or fishing license.

The agency sold 11,040 State Wildlife Area Passes from the last half of 2021 through June 2023, according to the financial report presented to parks and wildlife commissioners last month.

The agency fielded hundreds of comments in May on the new regulations for State Wildlife Areas, many opposing the idea of limiting access to the properties to only hunters and anglers.

“Our comments were not heard. It seems like they were ignored and CPW had its mind made up to favor hunting and fishing interests over all other wildlife recreation,” said Jennifer Best, the director of the Friends of Animals Wildlife Law Program.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife this month lost one State Wildlife Area after a lease dispute with the Army Corps of Engineers at John Martin reservoir in southeastern Colorado. The agency added the new Bighorn Springs State Wildlife Area along the Arkansas River near Nathrop on 122 acres owned by the Blue Triton Brands. The company, which used to be named Nestle Waters North America, harvests about 65 million gallons of spring water at the site and trucks it to Denver for bottling, provided the easement as part of its deal with Chaffee County. Access to the Bighorn Springs State Wildlife Area is for fishing only.

“There is no reason to think someone who is in the water or camping or hiking is having a more harmful impact than someone who is doing the exact thing but is also hunting and killing animals,” Best said. “It’s kind of absurd how one rule applies to all wildlife recreation and then there is a special rule applied to people killing animals and there are no reasons or support for making those rules.”

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