Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, Unarmed but dangerous critics close in on hunting.
After a poor deer and elk hunt this year, many Colorado outfitters are calling for a thinning of the herds. Not the herds of big game - it's the all-terrain vehicles that thundered through the state's public lands during hunting season. Sounding like outraged hikers, outfitters are blaming the rackety four-wheelers for chasing away animals, and ruining their livelihood in the process.
"They were just completely out of control," says Jack Lowe, president of the Colorado Outfitters Association. "Hunters don't want to come from out of state and not see any game."
"Four-wheelers are like cockroaches," outfitter Don Taylor told the Delta County Independent. "The infestation is so thick there's no controlling them. They get into every nook and cranny, and once they put a trail in, it's open to everybody."
Although some forests restrict travel by machines, Lowe and Taylor are asking the Forest Service to implement comprehensive travel plans for every national forest in Colorado. Such a plan was recently approved for Grand Mesa National Forest after a contentious four-year process of public meetings.
That process was largely held up by ATV users, says Lowe. They were the only group of nine interested parties - from grazing permittees and lodge owners to environmentalists - that continued to appeal the plan in its final stages. "They used every tactic they could find to stop the implementation of this thing," he says.
Beginning next year, the plan will restrict four-wheelers to established roads and trails, except during specified times when hunters may go off the trail to retrieve downed game. And until such travel plans are duplicated everywhere, outfitters want a ban on all four-wheelers during hunting season.
That's unlikely to happen, says Forest Service spokesman Matt Glasgow, citing multiple-use guidelines that specify four-wheelers as a legitimate form of recreation. "I don't think we're in a position to ban that use." Glasgow suggests instead that Colorado's Division of Wildlife enforce ATV violations along with hunting infractions.
Doing that would be outside the division's scope, says DOW spokesman Todd Malmsbury. But the state is trying to educate hunters, he says, and wildlife officers refer violations to the Forest Service whenever possible.
Lowe insists that something must be done now; hunters who don't use ATVs are reaching the boiling point. He points to one incident on Grand Mesa this fall where an outraged hunter was arrested for flipping over an ATV and setting it ablaze.
Glasgow says it could take years to determine public opinion on the matter. "We try to work with various users and sort out the conflicts," says Glasgow, "but we're getting a really mixed opinion."
Although Glasgow has faith that most ATV users adhere to the rules, other Forest Service officials remain skeptical. Even if travel plans were adopted, warns Rob Schmitzer, who works at Colorado's Routt National Forest, enforcement would still be a problem. His forest has signs, maps and brochures spelling out off-limit areas; this year ATV-users ignored all the rules. "Even with the patrols we had out, it got out of hand," he says.
Why the sudden onslaught? Schmitzer thinks it could be due in part to a general hostility toward any rules imposed by federal land agencies. Schmitzer and Lowe also point to simpler reasons: sunny weather, savvy ATV marketing and average fines as low as $75 for ATV violations - peanuts compared to the thousands of dollars out-of-state hunters spend during annual hunting trips.
To some ATV dealers, the real issue is sour grapes. "A guy can buy a four-wheeler for the price of one trip (with an outfitter), and then have it to use around his farm," says Darlene Skutchan, who sells four-wheelers in Delta in western Colorado. "I think the only reason (outfitters) are complaining is that it's hurting their pocketbook. Why should I give and not them?"
Skutchan admits there are hundreds more ATVs out during hunting season, but she thinks the answer to a better hunting season is a shorter one - not a ban on four-wheelers. There are monetary arguments against that too, she adds, especially because it would cut into the $40 million that the state earns through hunting licenses. With total related revenues somewhere around $700 million, hunting is Colorado's fifth largest industry.
"Who knows what the (ATV) salespeople tell hunters?" muses the Forest Service's Schmitzer. The end result is that more and more sportsmen are using them to hunt from, not just to retrieve game. Once the ATV hunters are in the field, they don't want to walk, says Schmitzer. "They want to try their machines out."