Elkonomics: Big-game hunting is big business in Colorado’s high country

Randy Wyrick
Vail Daily


• Eagle: 203

• Garfield: 322

• Grand: 237

• Moffat: 248

• Mesa: 484

• Pitkin: 70

• Rio Blanco: 191

• Routt: 292

• Summit 103

EAGLE — There’s nothing like armaments to stimulate an economy, and every autumn, an army of hunters rolls into Western Colorado, leaving billions of dollars in its wake.

Big-game hunting season is open.

The archers are the first to take the field, followed by black powder people and then rifle hunters.

In 2018, 127,600 elk licenses were issued statewide, down 5,600 as wildlife officials work to maintain healthy herd numbers, said Brad Petch, a senior Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist for the northwest region. That does not include over-the-counter bull licenses.

More than half of those — 75,500 hunters — will hit northwest Colorado.

“It’s a major event for lots of small towns,” Petch said.

Hunters eat in restaurants, stay in hotels and buy all kinds of stuff and create enough economic activity to support more than jobs.

“Hunters and anglers play a major role in sustaining Colorado’s natural resources through their willingness to pay for conservation through the purchase of hunting and fishing licenses,” said Bob Broscheid, director of Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

“We cannot predict the future but are planning for it. Colorado faces a growing number of challenges as we see unprecedented population growth, urban sprawl, habitat loss, continued debates over water use and a growing segment of citizens who are not connected to nature and its care.”


Colorado Parks and Wildlife hired Southwick Associates to quantify the economic contributions of outdoor recreation in Colorado, including hunting.

The study found that hunters and fishermen generate $1.8 billion every year for Colorado’s economy, up from $845 million in 2004. That supports 21,000 jobs across Colorado.

It may or may not surprise you to learn that the Colorado Parks and Wildlife found that almost as many people want to watch wildlife as they want to shoot it. Wildlife watching generated $1.2 billion and supports 12,800 jobs.

Big-game hunting is Colorado’s most popular form of hunting among both residents and visitors.

Across Colorado, big-game hunters spend 1,490,818 days in the field, the study found. Almost half of that, 671,700, or 45 percent, is in the northwest region, which includes Eagle County and most of the Central Rockies resort region.

Colorado residents account for 66.8 percent of those big-game hunting days. However, visitors spend much more money per day, nearly twice as much, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife found.

Hunters also spend more per day than non-motorized snowsports participants: $253.67 a day for hunters and $118.32 for non-motorized snowsports participants.


“Elk herds have been a big success story in Colorado. As we’ve sometimes struggled with deer herds, elk have been a vibrant and growing resource,” Petch said.

Herds peaked in the early 2000s, in some places 100 percent larger than wildlife officials wanted them to be. After bringing those elk numbers in line with their long-term objective, Colorado was home to 281,700 elk at the end of 2017, more than any other western state by a considerable margin, Fetch said.

Colorado’s Rockies have more areas of elk habitat, aspen stands, berries and oak brush. That doesn’t occur much north of the Colorado state line, Fetch said.

Like any good story, there’s a cloud.

The further south you go, the harder it seems to be to grow calves to adult members of their herds.

The state’s most productive herd is between Craig and Steamboat Springs — 58 calves for every 100 cows, Fetch said. However, south of the Interstate 70 corridor, it falls into the 30s.

“It’s a disturbing trend,” Fetch said. “Elk is something Colorado has had for the last few decades.”

They’re seeing a similar trend around Vail, from the Fryingpan to east of the Continental Divide. To drive that number, they’ve cut back on cow harvesting by issuing fewer licenses, Fetch said.