Loophole for Locals: Ranching for Wildlife

Live in Colorado and want a great hunt without the expense of guides, outfitters or access fees? More than a million acres of prime private wildlife habitat is open to the public on a limited basis under CPW’s Ranching for Wildlife program.

Licenses for these private land hunts, available only to in-state residents, cost the same as any public land hunting license. This makes them popular and also hard to get. Trophy hunters have to wait years to get enough preference points — up to 15 for a bull elk or a buck deer on some ranches. Doe and cow elk hunters need fewer points but are subject to the luck of the draw. Hunters seeking these coveted licenses must plan ahead, since they’re available only through the big game license draw.

The payoff for patience is a quality hunting experience on a private ranch with a 65 to 95 percent success rate.

Initiated in 1985, Ranching for Wildlife is limited to ranches with at least 12,000 contiguous acres that contain a significant number of species for which licenses can be drawn — elk, deer, pronghorn, bear, turkey, moose and bighorn sheep. The program now encompasses more than 25 ranches.

Participating landowners must have an acceptable management plan to improve wildlife habitat. Some ranches make special contributions to managing threatened and endangered species, and species of special concern such as sage grouse. Other ranchers have dedicated significant perpetual conservation easements. Many provide youth hunting opportunities, special public seasons during premier hunt times, and offer exceptional services to public hunters. All ranches must provide free public access to hunters who draw a limited license for the property.

The number of licenses issued on these ranches and the season dates are determined through negotiations between the landowner and CPW officials, with 10-20 percent of the male licenses and 100 percent of the female licenses allocated to the public.

In return, landowners receive 80-90 percent of the male licenses issued for their properties, for which they can charge hunters fees to access the land. They also are allowed up to 90 days to hold their hunts. Both the public and the private seasons can start earlier and run later in the year than regular rifle seasons.

Program coordinator Jerry Apker says some ranches with resident herds manage their big game populations to increase the age and size of their males, offering true trophy hunts. Other ranches simply play host to migrating herds. Those animals move between private and public land, but during the seasons are usually under little hunting pressure.

“One added advantage is that we get a female animal harvest on private land where without Ranching for Wildlife we probably wouldn’t get much at all,” says Apker. “That helps us meet our management objectives.”

Licenses issued for these ranches can only be used on the specified ranch. While public hunters are given the same access to the private property as those who pay a fee, wildlife managers and landowners often place additional conditions on public hunters to spread hunting pressure and to relieve concerns about security and liability.

“Hunting on these ranches is a privilege and public hunters need to respect the ranch rules for hunting, from closing gates to sticking to designated hunting areas,” says Apker. “And public hunters should never forget that they’re hunting for a fraction of the fee they’d pay as a private hunting guest. Their behavior may determine whether the landowner opts out or stays in the program.”

Successful applicants receive information on ranch rules before their hunts. Each hunter is usually allowed to bring one non-hunting companion. Each must sign a liability release and check-in and check-out with the landowner. Hunters may have to camp on adjoining public land or secure lodging in the nearest town.

More than 3,000 Ranching for Wildlife licenses are available each year.     Season dates for each ranch and year vary. Info: www.wildlife.state.co.us/ranching/ranching.asp.

—Eugene Buchanan