Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) is the state agency that manages wildlife and oversees outdoor recreation in Colorado. The agency operates the state park system, administers hunting and fishing licenses, conducts research on chronic wasting disease and other subjects related to maintaining healthy animal populations, protects wildlife through the continued acquisition and improvement of habitat, and provides educational outreach. CPW manages 42 state parks and more than 300 wildlife areas across Colorado and is responsible for all the wildlife within the state, regardless of whether the animals inhabit federal, state, or private land. It is nationally recognized as a leader in wildlife conservation and management. The central mission of Colorado Parks and Wildlife is to maintain healthy ecosystems, including watersheds and air, as well as to promote biological diversity to preserve a healthy standard of living for Coloradans and the state’s wildlife.
Mountain Men, Native Americans, and Miners
According to Pete Barrows and Judith Holmes, authors of Colorado’s Wildlife Story, Colorado wildlife “has weathered the tribulations of a young America flexing its muscle and applying its ingenuity to the task of taming the Western frontier in search of wealth and a fresh start.” Colorado’s wildlife, such as the iconic bighorn sheep, sustained the Ute, Arapaho, and Comanche for centuries. Wildlife drew the first Euro-Americans to Colorado before it achieved statehood in 1876. Intrepid mountain men trapped beaver and other fur-bearing mammals to sell the pelts for profit. Professional hunters furnished miners and loggers with meat and also supplied markets in cosmopolitan cities in the eastern United States, such as New York. Eventually, territorial legislation curbed the unrestrained exploitation of wildlife as centuries of overtrapping, overhunting, and overfishing became evident. Early conservationists recognized that Colorado’s wildlife was not infinite.
Colorado Department of Game and Fish
On April 27, 1899, the twelfth session of the Colorado legislature established the Colorado Department of Game and Fish. The newly formed state agency, headed by a commissioner appointed by the governor to a two-year term, oversaw as many as five chief game wardens along with up to ten deputy game wardens who received $100 per month in pay. The Colorado legislature selected T.H. Johnson as the first commissioner of the department, tasked with overseeing the enforcement of game and fish laws by the game wardens. The creation of numerous game and fish laws accompanied the establishment of the department. These laws included legal limits on the amount of game and fish to be taken, limits on the number of animals that could be held in possession, and fines for people caught violating the statutes.
In 1903, Commissioner John M. Woodard (1903–06) oversaw the administration of the first hunting licenses in Colorado. The Colorado Department of Game and Fish sold licenses for nonresident hunting, resident hunting, guide licenses, and taxidermy licenses, among others. It used revenue generated from the sale of licenses to pay the salaries of game wardens. In addition to hunting licenses, commissioner Woodard oversaw the development of minimum fines for violating bag limits on wildlife such as elk, deer, and antelope. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has used similar fines, even the threat of incarceration, to deter poaching and the illegal taking of wildlife.
Roland G. Parvin (1919–39) guided the agency through the First World War and the Great Depression. Parvin’s tenure as commissioner of the department is noted for two developments: the elimination of state appropriations to fund the department (the department became self-sustaining through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses), as well as the establishment of a commission of laypeople appointed by the governor to provide oversight and assure the agency would be responsive to the needs of citizens living in the state’s various geographic regions. The commission has varied in size but is now composed of eleven members.
In 1961 the Department of Game and Fish adopted the bighorn sheep as its official emblem, and in that same year the state of Colorado adopted the bighorn sheep as its official state animal. In 1963 commissioner Harry R. Woodward oversaw the merger of the Department of Game and Fish with the Colorado Parks Department. This merger only lasted eleven years and ended on July 1, 1972, when Senate Bill 42 became law, creating the Colorado Division of Parks and the Colorado Division of Wildlife. Finally, on January 1, 1970, Colorado enacted the mandatory hunter safety law and made bighorn sheep, the state animal, a “once in a lifetime” fill, meaning hunters could only take one of the large animals in their lifetime.
In 1937 Colorado had established its first state parks and recreation board in an attempt to create recreation opportunities for Coloradans. However, the effort did not bear fruit until 1957, when Governor Stephen McNichols appointed the first state parks and recreation board. In 1957, Harold Lathrop became the first state park director and oversaw a budget of $39,192. In 1960, the department established Cherry Creek State Park, Colorado’s first state park, and by 1962 annual visitation to the state’s growing portfolio of state parks exceeded one million people. However, because the Colorado Parks and Recreation Department was perpetually underfunded, it created tension when it merged with the Colorado Division of Wildlife. Fortunately, in 1964 Congress passed the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, which earmarked revenue for the planning, acquisition, and development of outdoor recreation. Yet even with this new source of revenue, the state legislature still failed to appropriate enough money for outdoor recreation, which eventually led to the separation of the two departments in 1972.
Funding the Future of Conservation
In 1986, under the directorship of Jim Ruch, Rebecca Frank became the first woman ever appointed to the Colorado Division of Wildlife Commission. Shortly after, in 1990 Colorado Governor Roy Romer created the Great Outdoors Colorado Citizens Committee with the help of Ken Salazar. In 1992, as a result of the committee’s work, Colorado voters approved the Great Outdoors Colorado Program Amendment to the state’s constitution. The legislation called for the transfer of proceeds from the state lottery into a trust fund created specifically for the conservation of Colorado’s wildlife. Section 1 of the amendment states that the Great Outdoors Colorado Program shall “preserve, protect, enhance and manage the state’s wildlife, park, river, trail and open space heritage.” The Colorado Division of Wildlife substantially benefitted from the increased revenues as a result of the constitutional amendment.
In 2011 the Colorado Division of Wildlife once again merged with Colorado State Parks in an effort to make the government more efficient. As of 2013, director Bob Broschied has overseen the renamed Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The conservation agency currently oversees 42 state parks, more than 300 wildlife areas, and 960 species of wildlife within the state. CPW manages 218,564 acres of state park lands, both terrestrial and aquatic, 684,252 acres of wildlife landscapes, as well as landscapes managed in concert with one of the agency’s many partners in conservation, such as the US Army Corps of Engineers and the US Bureau of Reclamation.
As of 2015, the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, along with other wildlife fees, generated $80,248,080—41 percent of the agency’s total revenue for the fiscal year. Great Outdoors Colorado generated another $31,596,886, which comprised 16 percent of the agency’s revenue for 2015. And while the scope of lands and wildlife managed by CPW has increased considerable over the agency’s 116-year history, its mission has remained the same: “to perpetuate the wildlife resources of the state, to provide a quality state parks system, and to provide enjoyable and sustainable outdoor recreation opportunities that educate and inspire current and future generations to serve as active stewards of Colorado’s natural resources.”