Steamboat Springs Editor's note: This story has been changed to clarify that over-the-counter licenses for later rifle season go on sale July 9 and remove the term trophy.
The elk aren’t leaving Colorado, but the hunters might be.
“The traffic flow of hunters is pretty important to Northwest Colorado,” said Brett Lee, who owns Straightline Sports in downtown Steamboat Springs with his brother Bruce. “If we’re losing hunters, that could really affect the community.”
Following the passage of new gun control measures by the Democratic-controlled Colorado Legislature, a number of groups have called on hunters to respond by avoiding the state.
“The economic toll is going to manifest itself on the Western Slope, where the most elk hunting is,” said Ken Constantine, owner of Elk River Guns in Steamboat. The Colorado Legislature is "sending a message across the nation that Colorado is not a gun-friendly state.”
That’s not true, Constantine said, but the message could have significant financial impacts.
It’s still early to gain a comprehensive sense of the impact outside of anecdotes, but the potential is there for not only guides and outfitters to be hurt but also the ancillary services such as meat processing, hotels and restaurants.
Two bills passed this session ban high-capacity magazines and impose universal background checks for the sale of firearms. The former bill grandfathers existing magazines and won’t affect the types of rifles typically used for elk hunting.
“I think it’s the principle of the thing,” Brett Lee said. “I think people think Colorado is down on hunters.”
Before the legislation was passed, Straightline made the decision to stock archery hunting equipment, Lee said, and that decision has only been reinforced by recent developments. The store sold hunting accessories previously but will focus heavily on archery.
“I want nothing to do with the gun scene,” he said.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s budget also is tied to revenue from hunting licenses, and out-of-state hunters pay much more in fees and spend more when traveling.
The online system for the state’s hunting permit draw crashed earlier this week because of a rush of people trying to register at the last minute.
Mike Porras, a public information officer for Parks and Wildlife, said he doesn’t know if that indicates one way or the other whether a boycott is taking off, but offices also were busy.
“We continue to stress the quality of hunting in Colorado,” Porras said about his agency’s response to talk of a boycott.
Some of the largest herds in the country and best opportunities to bag elk are in Colorado, he said, adding that there’s still the opportunity for hunters to purchase over-the-counter licenses for the later rifle seasons starting July 9.
People aren’t happy about the laws, said Lori Burch, of Burning Daylight Outfitters in Clark, but it hasn’t shown up in cancellations.
Lonny Vanatta, of Vanatta Outfitters, said his guides typically are booked two years in advance.
Vanatta said he's read online forums where people are writing that they won't hunt in Colorado, but it hasn't shown up in cancellations for his guides.
"If you like to hunt, you’re going to hunt," he said.
Still, stories of large cancellations and drop-offs in reservations persist, though none were confirmed Friday afternoon.
Dan Bubenheim, who owns Elk River Custom Wild Game Processing, also isn’t worried about a boycott.
Bubenheim doubted the efficacy of the laws in achieving the goal of reducing gun violence anytime soon but noted they should have little effect on hunters.
“I think that’s all just a bunch of talk,” he said. “If you enjoy something, and it’s your life, especially like hunting, I hardly doubt you’re going to give it up.
“A true-blue hunter, that’s their life, you know."
It will be weeks before data is available on whether permit applications are down, Porras said. And there’s still time for trips to be canceled or booked, with the first rifle season starting Oct. 12.
“What ultimately can be affected are many of the small communities that are dependent on hunting and fishing,” Porras said. “We just hope that people continue to come to Colorado.”
To reach Michael Schrantz, call 970-871-4206 or email mschrantz@SteamboatToday.com