Gary Hubbell: The Redneck Tree-Hugger
December 4, 2008
The storm had arrived in North Anthracite, one of the most remote basins in the Colorado Rockies. It’s great elk hunting if you know what you’re doing. But it can also be treacherous in late October at 11,000 feet, especially with six inches of snow already on the ground, the wind whipping and the snow blowing sideways. A lone hunter, well prepared on his sturdy mount, warmly dressed, rode up onto a high ridge in pursuit of elk.
Huddled in front of a flimsy little tent was a hunter who had booked a hunt with an illegal outfitter who was notorious for violating game laws in that area. The hunter was shivering and miserable, with no fire. As the horseman rode up, his voice quavered, “Did you come to get me? Are you my outfitter?”
“No, I’m here to hunt,” said the rider.
“Who is going to get me out of here? Can’t you help?” said the hunter.
“Call your outfitter,” the horseman said, and rode on, knowing the nearest cell phone service was 30 miles away.
According to the Outdoor Industry Foundation, active outdoor recreation contributes over $10 billion annually to Colorado’s economy, supporting 107,000 jobs and generating nearly $500 million in annual state tax revenue. Hunting and fishing contributed $1.5 billion of that amount as far back as 2002, and revenues have likely grown since then. Outfitters are the backbone of that industry, yet their livelihoods are threatened because of a lack of support from Colorado bureaucrats and legislators.
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So why doesn’t Colorado support its outfitters? Ask legislators that question, and they’ll spit cotton. “Why, of course we do,” they’ll say. “We… uh… we… well, I’ll have to get back to you on that.” Indeed, Colorado outfitters are regulated by the same agency that supervises mortgage brokers, real estate agents and hairdressers. The staff in Denver will freely admit that no one in their office has ever been in an outfitting camp or even hunting, for that matter. Few legislators have witnessed an outfitter in action, either.
Enforcement is ticky-tacky and petty for licensed Colorado outfitters, and close to non-existent for illegal outfitters. One outfitter I know spent more than $50,000 defending himself from license revocation because one of his guides didn’t have a current first aid and CPR card; it had expired a couple of weeks earlier. In the meanwhile, illegal outfitters come from all over the country to poach Colorado’s game. They have no liability insurance, no performance bond, and they take clients into hazardous situations with no guarantee that they’ll be there when the going gets tough. In fact, the fine for illegal outfitting with no license is lower than the fine levied against legal outfitters for a guide without a CPR card. Enforcement on illegal outfitting is extremely lax and prosecutions are very rare.
Other states support their outfitters. If you’re a non-resident hunter and you want to hunt in Idaho, Montana or Wyoming, chances are you’ll end up hunting with an outfitter, because their states grant licensed outfitters guaranteed tags. This is great for the local economy. A guided elk hunt will cost $4,500, on average, not including your license, travel, pre-hunt lodging and meals, gifts, gratuities, meat processing and taxidermy.
I used to outfit hunters in Marble. The hunters I guided spent a lot of money, and I paid out a lot of money locally. During hunting season, I employed as many as 10 guides, wranglers, cooks, and packers. City Market, Roaring Fork Co-op, local motels and restaurants, hay growers, feed stores, farriers, taxidermists and meat packers ” they all benefited from my clientele. All told, many of my clients spent more than $7,000 each by the time their week’s adventure was concluded.
Contrast that with this scenario: A guy with a gun shop in Tennessee puts a poster on the wall about Colorado elk hunting. They apply for first-season elk tags and are successful in the drawing. The illegal outfitter loads his horse trailer with seven mules and heads east. They stop in Kansas to buy food because it’s cheaper there. They camp at the trailhead. The illegal outfitter warns his clients to tell any Colorado game warden or U.S. Forest Ranger that they’re all “just friends”, that no one is receiving any compensation. They go into the high country and violate a number of game laws and camping regulations, then bring all their meat and antlers back home for the local packing plants and taxidermists to process in Tennessee. They buy a tank of fuel on their way out of Colorado. Their total contribution to the local economy is a couple hundred bucks per man, max.
Ask any outfitter ” this scenario is incredibly common. Any legal outfitter in the mountains can tell you that he’s outnumbered at least three to one by illegal outfitters in his permit area, and in many areas, there are five or six illegal outfitters for each legal, licensed outfitter.
When the chips are down, however, the search and rescue teams and the county sheriffs don’t call the illegal outfitters to extricate a lost hunter or climber from the backcountry. They call the legal outfitters, the ones who know the country, keep a stable of tough, well-trained horses, answer the phone at night and are woven into the community.
There’s a simple way to support these dedicated, professional, licensed, bonded and insured outdoor professionals: give them a certain number of guaranteed licenses so that they can book a certain amount of business each year. I remember getting inquiries from 20 hunters for first rifle season elk hunts and being able to book only four or five hunters. When the season started, I had four empty camps because my hunters couldn’t draw tags. However, there were plenty of non-resident hunters in the woods, many outfitted by illegal outfitters. For a full-time outfitter, booking another five or six hunters a year can make the difference between a week’s vacation in a sunny locale or eating elk burger and macaroni all winter.
The competition for Colorado hunting licenses is fierce. Archery hunters, landowners, and resident hunters are all waging battles to snag large blocks of elk, deer, and antelope licenses. Motel and restaurant owners, packing plants, and liquor store owners in rural communities clamor for more non-resident tags. Outfitters are the only constituency that has never found favor with the Colorado Wildlife Commission and the state legislature. Give them some guaranteed non-resident hunting licenses so that they can book business. Heck, a couple of illegal outfitters might have to stay home when their hunters can’t draw tags.