Deer and elk are the most commonly hunted species in Colorado. But hunters also go to the high country to pursue other magnificent big game animals: bighorn sheep, mountain goats, bears, moose and mountain lions.
The numbers of these animals in the state are significantly lower than deer and elk, so licenses are few and difficult to get. But those who obtain a license can look forward to a high-quality hunting experience.
The bighorn is perhaps the most recognized and sought-after animal in Colorado. The curled horns of the rams display one of the most magnificent characteristics of any wildlife species.
But while the hardy animals live in harsh terrain, bighorns are a fragile species and Colorado wildlife managers are keeping a close watch on them. The population of big horns is estimated at only about 6,800 and the population has dropped slightly in the past few years.
For the 2016 season, Colorado Parks and Wildlife issued only 306 licenses for the entire state, and 167 animals were harvested, including 127 rams and 40 ewes for a 63 percent success rate. Getting a license is difficult, with most hunters waiting a minimum of five to seven years to draw a tag. Depending on the unit, many hunters have waited more than 10 years for a license.
The preferred habitat of bighorns is steep, rocky slopes with little vegetation.
"They are very challenging to hunt," says Scott Wait, senior terrestrial biologist for the agency in southwest Colorado.
While not meaning to be discouraging, Wait doesn't mince words about the realities of hunting for sheep. Preseason scouting is essential.
"They are very wary. The stalk is usually long, strenuous and in difficult terrain," Wait says. "Most hunters must make long shots, often 200 yards or more. So you'll need high-quality optics, and rifles must be properly sighted in."
Retrieving an animal, of course, adds to the hunting challenge.
The good news for hunters is that bighorns are most active during the day and follow predictable daily patterns.
Unfortunately, for the bighorn, their predictability contributes to their fragility. Unlike other big game species, they do not adapt easily to new areas. They like to stay on their home turf, even when they are pressured by development or other animals-wild and domestic.
When pressured, the animals become stressed and do not reproduce well. Sheep also are susceptible to diseases spread by domestic sheep and goats, and wild mountain goats.
All the herds in the state are closely monitored by agency biologists.
Colorado is also home to desert bighorn sheep. Statewide, the population of this species is growing slowly, although there are only an estimated 540 animals in the state, all on the western edge of Colorado. Only 11 ram licenses were issued in 2016 and 11 animals were harvested.
The adaptable, hardy mountain goats seem to be able to defy gravity. These snow- white critters inhabit terrain that is even more severe than the haunts of bighorn sheep.
Goats balance on narrow bands of rock on sheer cliffs, and eat lichen and small plants. They seem to think nothing of jumping from one precipice to another. Goats also remain at high-elevation year around, enduring brutal winter conditions above timberline at more than 11,000 feet.
Mountain goats were transplanted in Colorado from other states in the 1940s. There is still debate if they were ever native to the state.
Goats are very adaptable and can move long distances to get to new terrain. Unfortunately, they also carry a disease that might infect bighorn sheep. Consequently, wildlife managers work to keep the goats in areas where they've long been established and where they don't interact with bighorns. These areas include the Raggeds Wilderness near Gunnison, in the mountains around Georgetown, in the Collegiate Peaks west of Buena Vista, in the Gore Range in the central mountains, and in the San Juan Mountains near Silverton.
The DOW estimates the mountain goat population at about 1,560. In 2016, 184 licenses were issued and 127 goats were harvested for a 70 percent success rate.
Those who want to hunt goats should expect to wait five years or more to accumulate enough preference points to for a license.
It's estimated that from 18,000 to 22,000 bears live in Colorado. Bears are mostly solitary and reproduce slowly. Sows do not start producing cubs until they are four or five years old and then can only give birth every other year. Cubs often stay with their mothers for up to two years. Bears range generally in size from about 175 pounds for a sow and up to about 300 pounds for a boar. Few bears exceed 350 pounds in Colorado.
Bears live primarily in the range of 6,000 feet to 9,500 feet in elevation in thick oak brush and aspen groves. Population and reproduction vary depending on the availability of their favorite foods - acorns from oak brush, berries, grasses and forbs. When the weather is wet, that's good news for bears. During drought fewer bears are born. Most bears are killed by hunters during September when the animals are most active searching for food before they go into hibernation.
The difficulty in obtaining a hunting license depends on the season and the specific game management unit. Bear-only rifle licenses, obtained through the draw, usually require preference points depending on the unit. During the regular big game deer and elk seasons, a limited number of bear licenses are available over-the-counter, but a hunter must have a deer or elk license for the same season.
In 2016, some 17,000 hunters harvested about 935 bears, a 5 percent success rate. One reason for the low harvest rate is that bears are difficult to hunt because they live primarily in thick brush. Also, after September their eating slows down and they are more difficult to find. By early November, most bears are curled up for their six-month nap.
Most bears are harvested when the weather is warm, so a successful hunter must attend to the carcass quickly. Remove the hide as fast as possible after the kill and trim away the fat. Then get the meat on ice as soon as possible. In warm weather, meat will spoil quickly.
Anyone who harvests a bear also must bring the carcass to a parks and wildlife office within five days of the kill so the sex and size can be determined and entered into a data base. A small tooth -the first premolar-is also removed so that researchers can be determined the age of the animal and how many times the sow has given birth to cubs.
The most elusive big game animal in Colorado is the mountain lion. Also known as pumas or cougars - they live in areas where there is dense vegetation and often very broken terrain such as canyons and rocky hillsides. Deer are the primary prey for Colorado's biggest native cat.
The population of lions in the state is estimated to be from 3,000 to 7,000. For the 2014-15 season, the most recent statistic available, 2,269 licenses were issued and 467 lions were taken by hunters, a 21 percent success rate.
Licenses for lions can be purchased over-the-counter and the fall season lasts from November through March. There is also a season during April. Hunters who obtain licenses must call in every day to check if quotas have been filled in specific game management units.
Most lion hunting occurs when there is snow on the ground. Dogs pick up the scent from tracks and chase the lions into trees. The chase is often long and difficult through challenging terrain.
Moose were introduced to Colorado in the late 1970s. Moose are solitary and reproduce slowly. It is estimated that about 2,550 moose live in Colorado. They are concentrated primarily in North Park, on the Grand Mesa, in the Taylor Park area, in the upper Rio Grande River drainage, and in the La Garita Mountains south of Gunnison.
Moose licenses are difficult to obtain and more than 11,000 hunters annually apply for licenses annually. Only 343 licenses were issued in 2016. A total of 248 animals were taken during the season for a 78 percent success rate.
Photos courtesy USFWS.