Legacy Ranches and Fine Sporting Properties

Spring Planning: Colorado Big Game Hunting on Private Ranches

Ranch broker Trey Milhoan is an expert in Colorado big game hunting properties, and has professionally guided hunts on world renowned sporting ranches in Texas, Nebraska, Colorado and Montana for nearly two decades. Accompanying his hunting experience, Trey is a TCU Ranch Management alumnus and previous manager of several large Colorado cattle ranches.

In the following article, he offers his guidance on what landowners should be considering and planning from a ranch operation and hunting prospective as we head into the spring season.

Wildlife Conservation

This is the time of year to lay out a calendar of ranch operations for the new season, and for the ranch owner with hunting interests to get fall hunting applications in and consider any plans for wildlife conservation.

When you purchase a ranch you are investing in experiences yet to be had, and those experiences warrant care and consideration; how those experiences are realized can and will have a large impact on the economic and ecological health of a property.

Ranchers are encouraged to participate in conservation rather than just observe it, and this is often done through hunting and fishing. Used properly, they can be valuable conservation tools that benefit a plethora of resources for wildlife and landowners alike.

Colorado Big Game Hunting Application Deadline

The deadline for many western states to apply for big game hunting licenses is early April. The Colorado deadline for the primary big game draw is Tuesday April 7th, by 8:00 pm. For many landowners this is a critical deadline, as much of a ranching enterprises’ cash flow can be derived from Colorado big game hunting and outfitting revenue.

The ecological benefits of western ranchland ecosystems to wildlife are immeasurable, providing:

  • Habitat,
  • sanctuary, 
  • and critical ranges.

Economic contributions of hunting and fishing here in Colorado exceed $3 billion dollars to the state economy annually, much of that commerce is private land hunting opportunities. Private land hunting and fishing consistently outperforms on the spectrum of success for sportsmen and women, and routinely commands a premium in its marketplace. 

This being said, ranch owners looking to balance operating costs and enhance their wildlife conservation footprint might consider some of these available options:

Cow elk wintering on Grassy Creek Ranch near Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The entirety of Cross Mountain Ranch is involved in Colorado Parks & Wildlife’s Ranching for Wildlife Program

What Ranchers Should Consider

Leasing

Leasing to a private party or an outfitter is often a great option for ranch owners to manage wildlife resources. With some up front communication and planning, a relationship with a quality outfitter can yield terrific results and enhance a property’s natural resources. 

The most successful arrangements occur when outfitters and owners can collaborate to establish conservation goals that are mutually beneficial (ex: Quality over quantity). State wildlife and fisheries agencies are the MVP’s of the game (no pun intended) and should always be involved in the planning process. Many state agencies allocate tags specific to private lands and a whole host of special programs are available to landowners willing to work with their state wildlife managers.

In-House

For the semi-retired “no-quit in them” ranch owners, operating a small scale outfitting / hunting business on the ranch can be a wonderful endeavor and one where they can be actively involved in direct sustainability of the property and the wildlife resources. 

I meet a lot of ranch owners who merge their success in the business world into outfitting and really enjoy it. This approach is advantageous to the landowner who likes to be hands on and who often incorporates personal business relationships to entertain clients and friends. Additionally, it allows landowners to hand pick who, when, and how many guests will be on the ranch, as well as block out periods for personal or family hunts, and offers more flexibility around changes in wildlife systems. 

Public Access / Trespass Fee

Almost gone are the days of knocking on farmers or ranchers’ doors for access to hunt or fish. There is a new standard for compensation in almost everything we do as a society, and sportsman’s activities are no different. Allowing people access for a fee is no new concept but one that is seldom used.  

In this scenario owners and managers often have little control over the quality and age structure of harvested game, resulting in the inability to make positive changes in game animals. But if the ranches liability policies allow, the trespass fee hunter can be a tool to control / manage wildlife populations in certain times of the year or swings in populations occur. Always consult an attorney before allowing any sporting activity on the property.

Winter on the Grassy Creek Ranch
Colorado Big Game Hunting: Winter 2020 on the Grassy Creek Ranch near Steamboat Springs, Colorado

Quick Tips

  • Longer term leases incentivize outfitters / lessees’ to manage wildlife in a more conservative manner, while offering more secure budget forecasting to the ranch operations. 
  • Owners can have peace of mind knowing that guests on the ranch are accompanied by guides or ranch representatives at all times.
  • Outsourcing wildlife and fishery management can relieve operation and liability burdens for owners.
  • Work with a reputable outfitter / lessee – Speak to previous clientele and background check. 
  • Outfitting is just like ranching – “It’s hard to build a good reputation, and very easy to get a bad one.”
  • Success requires consistency in trophy quality, guest experience, and quality personnel. 
  • Staffing and recruitment in rural communities can sometimes limit a ranch’s capabilities. 
  • Approach properties with a conservative management approach for the first year or two to fully evaluate what potential (trophy class wildlife) it has, and then reassess. 

For many ranch owners it may not be necessary or desired to have guests on the property at all, but wildlife management cannot be foregone. Owners and managers should routinely work with state game agencies, wildlife biologists, or wildlife professionals and constantly have a pulse on the landscape they control. 

I was educated in the school of “you cannot manage what you do not measure.” Knowing wildlife numbers, predator densities, harvest objectives, age structures, reproduction rates, and how your neighbors manage all tie into the ecological health of your ranch. This bank of knowledge assists in establishing stocking rates of livestock, pasture rotations, forestry management, water and irrigation, crop rotation, and so on.

In conclusion, whatever direction markets may turn or lifestyle changes will be altered, those of us in the outdoor ranching and recreation worlds must forge ahead because we are the stewards of land, wildlife and water, and they will not wait. 

And remember, the deadline to submit applications is April 7th! For your convenience, here’s the Colorado Big Game Brochure.

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