By: Robert Davis

The Colorado House Committee on Rural Affairs and Agriculture voted to pass legislation yesterday to increase fines for violating sport shooting and hunting laws in Colorado’s parks and open spaces.

HB19-1026 passed by a 10-1 margin and is sponsored by Reps. Marc Catlin (R-Montrose), Julie McCluskie (D-Delta), and Sens. Don Coram (R-Montrose) and Kerry Donovan (D-Delta). Rep. Kimmi Lewis (R-Baca) was the lone “no” vote.

“I can’t say I support anything in this bill,” Lewis told Gunpowder Magazine. “First, they want to increase fines without considering effects it might have on private property. Then, the main concern voiced is that the number of hunters and anglers in Colorado is decreasing, and I don’t see how this bill helps that.”

This is the second time in as many sessions that the General Assembly has passed a bill that raises fees and fines associated with the use of public lands. Last session, SB18-143 outlined many of the same provisions as HB 1026 and was signed into law in May 2018 by former Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Hitting the Pocketbooks of Sportsmen
Critics of the bill cite specific concerns regarding how it will discourage future hunters and sport shooters from participating in activities directly tied to Colorado’s founding.

“I’ve talked to hunters and anglers all over the state who have said they are going to take their activities elsewhere,” Anthony Fabian, president of the Colorado Sport Shooters Association, told Gunpowder Magazine. “It’s becoming harder to find land to hunt on, and they keep monkeying with the hunting seasons themselves. It’s no mystery why the numbers are decreasing.”

Fabian says many of the hunters he’s spoken to are choosing to hunt on lands in Montana, Wyoming, and New Mexico because the states offer more stability for the sport.

Many of the fines in the bill directly affect hunters and sport shooters. For example, Section 7 increases the fine from $50 to $150 for disallowing a firearms inspection by a parks and wildlife or peace officer; Section 11 increases the fine from $50 to $100 for having a loaded gun in a vehicle; and Section 12 increases the fine from $50 to $100 for shooting from a public road.

Colorado’s Department of Parks, Recreation, and Wildlife also raised its fees for many park activities in 2019, including daily vehicle passes, fishing licenses, small game licenses, and multi-year raptor hunting licenses.

The Department did not immediately respond to request for comment on this story.

Preserving a Way of Life
“This goal is to be able to enjoy the Colorado way of life safer, and respect the land and our neighbors,” Rep. Brianna Titone (D-Jefferson), who also sits on the Rural Affairs and Agriculture committee, said in a tweet shortly before the bill passed.

Outdoor recreation is a huge driver of Colorado’s economy, and some critics of the bill worry raising these fines will discourage sport shooters and hunters from recreating on public lands.

In 2018, outdoor recreation supported more than 229,000 jobs and accounted for $9.7 billion in wages and salaries, according to The Outdoor Industry Association. This generated more than $2 billion in tax revenue for Colorado.

But, experts disagree about the number of hunting a fishing licenses awarded each year.

According to the Department of Natural resources, 1.7 million hunting and fishing licenses were given out in the 2018-19 fiscal year. Lewis said when an expert from the Department of Parks and Wildlife testified before the committee, the number given was much lower.

“We should be using these funds to clean up our parks and take out the trash. We need to take care of what we already have, not grow the size of our government” Lewis said.

All about the Bucks
Proponents of the bill argue the state is in desperate need of funding for the Department of Parks and Wildlife, thereby necessitating the fee hike.

“Many of these user fees, licenses, and fines are so far behind,” Rep. Bri Buentello (D- Fremont), another member of the Rural Affairs &Agriculture committee, told Gunpowder Magazine. “This bill helps provide some much needed relief to our cash-strapped Department of Parks, Recreation, and Wildlife to preserve our beautiful state.”

Under current law, however, not all of the money collected from fines goes toward Parks and Wildlife. The state treasurer is required to divide the money allocated from these fines among the Division of Parks and Wildlife and any local government or state agency that issues the citation.

The Department of Parks and Wildlife currently makes up more than 46 percent of the Department of Natural Resources’ budget. In total, the Department of Natural Resources takes up just one percent of the state’s entire operating budget.

Even with this budget, the Department is unable to sustain itself. It’s been this way since the state government folded the Department of Wildlife (DOW) into the Department of Parks and Recreation in 2013. Before, DOW was self-funded by fees and fines. Now, it’s become completely reliant on diminishing state funds.

“The assault on the pocketbooks of sportsmen is never-ending,” Fabian said. “If we were getting a better return for our bucks, this would not be such a contentious issue.”

Robert Davis is a general assignment reporter for Gunpowder Magazine. You can reach him at [email protected].