Colorado Parks and Wildlife hunting regulations are numerous, complicated, and strict. In my many dealings with Colorado Game Wardens, the one anecdote that I have been told several times is, “If you hunt in Colorado long enough, you will more than likely eventually commit a violation.” While as hunters and stewards of conservation we strive to maintain legal status while hunting, we are undoubtedly human and bound to make mistakes.
Hundreds of Colorado hunting violations are issued every year to hunters that, for the most part, only made an error with no intention of wrongdoing. These violations range from felonies and fines of tens of thousands of dollars to small misdemeanor tickets with fines around $70.00. According to the Annual Report of the CPW for 2015, the top 10 hunting specific violations issued that year are as follows:
2015 Colorado Hunting Violations
(Note: The #1 violation overall issued by the CPW is for fishing without a license. In 2015, 923 tickets for fishing without a license were issued.)
1. Possession of a Loaded Firearm in a Vehicle, C.R.S. 33-6-125
The most common hunting violation in Colorado for 2015 involves the carrying of loaded firearms in a vehicle. Colorado law prohibits carrying any rifle or shotgun in a vehicle with a round in the chamber. The statute specifically excludes pistols or revolvers as firearms that must be unloaded when traveling in a vehicle. Muzzleloaders, according to 33-6-125, “shall be considered unloaded if it is not primed, and, for such purpose, "primed" means having a percussion cap on the nipple or flint in the striker and powder in the flash pan.”
Interestingly, the statute explicitly states that it is the chamber that must be unloaded and does not specify whether the magazine or clip must be empty as well. Given this distinction, it would arguably be the case that the clip or magazine of the firearm may remain loaded in a vehicle. However, wise hunters completely unload their firearms magazine or clip as well to stay on the safe side. Additionally, the conversation with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife officer inspecting your firearms about whether the statute means you can leave shells in a magazine or clip is not much fun at all, no matter how right you may be.
Avoiding this violation means ensuring that all firearms (even those of your traveling companions) are unloaded before you put you even put your vehicle into gear. As a driver, you may receive a ticket for your partner’s loaded shotgun. A conviction or guilty plea here means a misdemeanor on your record and fifteen (15) license suspension points.
2. Unlawful Possession of Small Game C.R.S. 33-6-109(1), (3)(h)
Unlawful possession of wildlife is broken down by species of animal. The second most common hunting violation in Colorado is the unlawful possession of small game. Essentially, this is a catch-all provision where if a hunter takes any game in a manner other than those allowed by the parks and wildlife regulations, he or she may be charged with this violation as well. This violation can range from shooting over your limit of ducks in a day to shooting pheasants or doves out of season (in addition to the charge you would receive for Hunting In Closed Season, C.R.S. 33-6-120).
Under this statute, each small game animal that you illegally possess is counted. For the first animal, you will be charged a $50 penalty and an assessment of five (5) license suspension points. For each additional animal that you are illegally in possession of, the fine is $25 and five (5) additional license points per animal.
Avoiding this common violation means being extra vigilant in your hunting efforts. While pheasant hunting in Eastern Colorado, hunters commonly come across prairie chickens and different species of grouse or quail. However, those upland birds may not be in season at the time, so make sure your whole hunting party knows what birds are in season and fair game to shoot. Likewise, when your party is waterfowl hunting, keep a close track of how many birds each person has shot and who has not filled their limit of ducks or geese. Your hunting party needs to make sure to accurately count the birds in possession of each person to make sure no one accidentally shoots more than allowed by law.
3. Hunting Without a Valid/Proper License C.R.S. 33-6-107
Colorado requires every hunter to have a valid hunting license and a hunter education certificate in their possession while hunting. Failure to have these items on your person while hunting is a misdemeanor violation and carries fines depending on the type of license and the type of hunting that you are doing. The fines vary based on if you are hunting big game or small game and the fine would be determined accordingly. Failing to have a big game license will cost you twice the amount of the most expensive license for that species of big game, and earn you fifteen (15) license suspension points. For every license that is not a big game license, the cost is twice that of the most expensive kind of license for that species and earns you ten (10) license suspension points.
The turning point of this particular violation is that the license and permit must be actually on your person. This means under your physical control at the time that you are hunting—not in your truck, in the blind bag, or in your guide or outfitter’s possession on the other side of the mountain. There may be defenses available if, in good faith, you forget your licenses in your truck or residence, but the best practice is to keep these items in constant possession on your person. On the other hand, altogether failing to purchase a license before hunting would also mean facing charges under this statute.
Out of state non-resident hunters sometimes balk at the requirement for hunters in Colorado to have their hunter’s safety certificate or identification card in their possession while hunting. Simply having the number on your Colorado license or a license from another state is not enough. Hunters in Colorado must have the state-issued hunter education card from the state in which they took the course OR have their hunter’s safety number verified by phone by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife office. Verification will mean reprinting your cards to show a “V” next to your license number.
4. Hunting Without Permission on Private Property C.R.S. 33-6-116
Trespassing is a serious offense in Colorado and depending on the part of the state that you are in, can be very easy to commit for the hunter not paying very close attention.
In fact, because trespassing is what is called a “strict liability” crime, you do not even have to intend to trespass to be guilty of the crime. Stepping foot onto private property without permission even accidentally can earn you a trespassing ticket in Colorado.
When hunting in Colorado, it is imperative to know the boundaries of the property that you are hunting. Whether you are on private property of your own, property that you have permission to hunt on, or public property, hunters are advised to have not only maps and GPS but also a clear understanding of where the boundaries are on the physical property. Fences, tree lines, or other landmarks are crucial for hunters, especially when pursuing game that may run close to such boundaries.
Additionally Colorado, unlike some other states, does not allow hunters to access private property because it is not posted with signs designating the boundaries. Accessing private property without previous permission of the owner is a trespassing offense, even if you are retrieving downed game that only ran or flew onto private property after being shot. Colorado law requires hunters accessing the property to retrieve downed game to first make a reasonable attempt to contact the landowner before doing so. As you may imagine, this does present quite a problem for hunters in Colorado’s many rural regions where the owner’s information may not be readily available, but the animal may be at risk for spoiling or being lost if not followed immediately. What would be considered a reasonable attempt? Currently, there are no written recommendations by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife enforcement officers, so it 's hard to give any guidance.
For hunters facing trespassing violations in Colorado, you should know that there are usually some defenses available to trespassing. These defenses usually center around the measures that hunters take to prevent trespassing. Essentially, the hunter that has several maps and up to date GPS assistance most likely will have a defense to trespassing where the location of the hunter is in dispute. The State must prove that the hunter trespassed, and absent any evidence to that fact, the hunter cannot be charged. This is a crucial point to understand: The State must prove the crime was committed. If the State cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the hunter indeed set boots on the ground where he did not have permission, the hunter cannot be prosecuted for it.
5. Unlawful Possession of Elk and 9. Unlawful Possession of Deer C.R.S. 33-6-109
Unlawful Possession of Elk and Unlawful Possession of Deer are interesting violations. Usually, this particular offense is what is known as a “lesser included offense” to some other charge. The unlawful possession of elk or deer stems from some other violation being committed that led to the possession. For instance, a hunter that is hunting without a license and kills an animal, and subsequently reduces it to his possession would be unlawfully in possession of that animal. A conviction of illegal possession of elk carries a $1,000 fine and fifteen (15) license suspension points. A conviction of illegal possession of deer carries a fine of $700 and fifteen (15) license suspension points.
Committing a violation in regards to harvesting an elk does not necessarily mean that you should just leave or abandon the elk once you realize that you have done something wrong. If you do realize that you have made a mistake after reducing the elk to your possession, it is in your best interest to contact your attorney to facilitate turning the elk over to authorities. Often, when the kill is still fresh, the authorities will have the hunter clean and dress the elk so that the meat can be donated to worthy causes. Doing this will go a long way in negotiating a plea bargain or even convincing the officer not to write a ticket at all. Mistakes happen in the field and taking all measures to mitigate the damage is the best road to recovery.
6. Failure to Leave Evidence of Sex C.R.S. 33-6-112
Tags in Colorado are often specific to sex, such as a bull elk or doe only tag. Hunters with these specific tags must keep evidence of sex attached to the animal while transporting so that wildlife officials can accurately identify the animals in the hunter’s possession.
Let’s first identify what evidence of sex is for particular species. For a buck deer or bull elk, the antlers and head attached to the carcass or the testicle, scrotum, or penis of the animal attached to the body. Heads detached from the animal are not evidence of sex. For a doe deer or cow elk, the head, udder, or vulva must still be attached to the carcass. A male black bear must have a scrotum or penis attached to the carcass, while a female black bear must retain the vulva on the carcass. Additionally, small game must retain a wing, spurred leg, skin or plumage to identify sex and species during transport.
Leaving evidence of sex attached does require some planning and careful cleaning on the part of the hunter. While no skinning job will be perfect and you are bound to eventually make some kind of cut that you didn’t mean to, it is imperative that the hunter takes every step that they can to retain evidence of sex on the carcass. If your animal is deboned, evidence of sex must be attached to some major portion of the carcass or a quarter and transported with the animal.
7. Waste of Game C.R.S. 33-6-119
Number 7 on our list is a violation known as “Waste of Game.” Colorado has two separate and distinct game animal waste statutes. These statutes separate two different methods of illegal behavior with respect to game animals. The first and the one that makes the list here specifically deals with those who fail to take reasonable steps to care for the meat while the other deals with those who take wildlife with the intent to just abandon the carcass.
The first statute dealing with the waste of game is the “Waste of Edible Wildlife,” statute, C.R.S. 33-6-119(2). A violation of this law occurs where someone fails to reasonably attempt to take care of edible portions of a game animal. This is along the lines of the situation where someone would be accused of carelessly getting an animal out of the field in such a way that the meat would spoil or taking only the backstraps and hind quarters off an elk or deer. This is, in the eyes of the law, a step down from just shooting an animal and taking only the trophy, the Colorado Department of Wildlife and Parks nonetheless is reinforcing the idea that you must properly care for the entire animal if you undertake responsibility for it. Violations of the Waste of Edible Wildlife statute are a misdemeanor. For big game, this misdemeanor is accompanied by fifteen (15) license suspension points. Small game violations of the statute come with ten (10) license suspension points.
If you are out hunting, you should be consciously taking steps to prevent the waste of wildlife. If deer or elk hunting, you may be tired from a day’s hunting and think that the downed animal will be fine overnight, but if the temps fail to fall below 60 or 70 degrees as can often happen during the early fall seasons and your animal spoils, you could be facing a ticket. Likewise, early season dove hunters should immediately care for the meat from the doves to prevent spoilage during the hot September seasons.
The more serious of the two offenses is the “Willful Destruction of Wildlife,” C.R.S. 33-6-117. Willful destruction of wildlife is where the officers are charging you with taking only the trophy portions of an animal with no intention of using the meat or carcass whatsoever. Essentially, this statute would apply if you shot a deer and just removed the antlers, shot a bear and just took the claws or hide, or a mountain lion and only took the teeth. For big game, this is a felony and can mean a great deal of trouble for you if convicted. For small game, this is a misdemeanor with the possibility of a $1,000 fine. Both big and small game violations for this statute come with twenty (20) license suspension points.
The best advice if you find yourself with a trophy bull elk or buck deer and face a long pack out, leave the antlers for your last trip. While you may have every intention of taking the entire animal, this just makes the game warden’s job easier when determining if you did intend to go back for the rest.
Again, if you are out hunting, you should be taking conscious steps to avoid getting a ticket under this statute. As you can see, this statute is meant to curb the flagrant trophy hunters who remove trophy parts of animals and doing everything you can to stay on the right side of the law in this situation will pay dividends in the end.
8. Failure to Tag C.R.S. 33-6-111
“Failure to tag” refers to any violations of tagging procedures for Colorado wildlife. Failing to void your license correctly, improper attachment of the tag to the animal, or not tagging at all is a misdemeanor punishable by a $50 fine and ten (10) license suspension points. If you plan to hunt game requiring a tag, such as big game or turkey, you should familiarize yourself with the tagging procedures as even many veteran hunters can quickly run afoul of some of the lesser known regulations.
For instance, placement of the tag on any Colorado big game is a very specific procedure. Placing the tag on the antlers of the animal is improper and can result in a ticket. The tag MUST be placed on the actual animal carcass on the back leg. When the animal is quartered and the head removed, the tag must stay with the meat until delivered to a processor. The tag can then go with the antlers to the taxidermist. Even if the meat is deboned, the tag must stay in the cooler or game bag with the meat and kept identifiably separate from the meat of any other animals that you or your party may have harvested.
To stay on the safe side, the general rule that I advise most hunters to follow is to use separate coolers for every animal or to have a physical divider such as a piece of plywood to separate boned out meat from different animals. The over-prepared hunter may even make copies of his tag before venturing out if the animal will be going into multiple coolers for the trip out of the field.
10. Sale of Wildlife (misdemeanor) C.R.S. 33-6-113
Illegal sale of wildlife covers a variety of illegal activities involving wildlife and the exchange of money. Colorado statutes make it illegal to sell or offer for sale any wild game or to solicit another person in the illegal hunting of wildlife. This makes the selling of any harvested game such as elk, deer, ducks, rabbits, or pheasants illegal. Many restaurants offer “wild game” menus that feature everything from elk and alligator to ducks and pheasants, although these animals are farm raised and not actual wild game.
Additionally, the illegal sale of wildlife covers any violations relating to guiding or outfitting services in Colorado. Outfitters in Colorado must register with the Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) before providing any outfitting or guiding services. Failure to register, legally maintain your registration or failure to follow any of the rules outlined for outfitters in the rules set by DORA can result in violation for Illegal Sale of Wildlife. Outfitters who illegally procure licenses for their clients or abuse the hunting laws in Colorado for monetary gain are also subject to punishment under these provisions.
Violating the statutes covering the illegal sale of wildlife carries hefty fines and punishments. Violations relating to small game are misdemeanors and carry a fine of up to $1,000 and twenty (20) license suspension points as well as possible jail time. Violations for big game are felonies and gives the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission the power to revoke your hunting privileges for life.
While it is unlikely that a hunter, as the client, would be prosecuted for the outfitter breaking the law, some statutes do allow for an individual hunter to be charged whether he knew he was violating the law or not. Before hiring any outfitting service in Colorado, do your homework. Check the local laws for the area you’ll be hunting, check the status of your outfitter’s license on the DORA website, and make sure the licenses you are getting were legally acquired. It is up to the hunter to do the due diligence before going on any guided hunt; ignorance of the law will not be an excuse once the hunter is charged with any violation.
Regardless of the situation, if you commit a hunting violation, or find yourself receiving a ticket for an alleged hunting violation, you must realize that you have options. Paying the fine to the officer in the field or mailing in your payment is just pleading guilty to the charges. This can lead to your hunting privileges being suspended not only in Colorado, but your home state as well. Consulting with an attorney can provide you with all of the options that are available to you including any defenses you may have.
Nate Gilbert is a licensed attorney in Colorado and Kansas focusing on Hunting, Farm and Ranch, and Leasing Law. He is an avid outdoorsman and hunter, dedicating a large portion of his practice to working with and defending hunters, guides and outfitters, landowners, and conservation agencies. Nate can be reached at http://longilbert.com.