Archery season for elk and deer begins this weekend on the Western Slope.
Soon the rifle season will bring hunters to Northwest Colorado in droves. Resident outfitters are looking forward to the guided hunts that sustain them, but they also are anticipating a vexing problem: competition from illegal outfitters.
Outfitters must be registered, bonded and insured to operate in Colorado and have permits to operate on public lands, said Larry Bishop, the president of the Northwest Chapter of the Colorado Outfitters Association.
Despite the law, many hunters remain unaware that outfitters must be licensed. But because law enforcement agencies are stretched thin during the hunting season, legal outfitters feel somewhat helpless about stopping the practice of cash-under-the-table hunts.
"We know it happens, but how do you tell who's doing it and who isn't?" Bishop asked. "They just keep it hush-hush and say 'we're just a bunch of friends.'"
Investigators and prosecutors have so many other priorities that illegal outfitting "takes a backseat to everything," Bishop said. "The laws are there; it's just getting someone to enforce them. We're talking about a white-collar crime here, and it's just not a big thing on their agenda so it just kind of goes rampant."
Because enforcement is such a challenge, it emboldens the practice. So the association is turning to education in an effort to stem illegal outfitting.
"The consumer just does not know," Bishop said.
Jeanne Horne, a member of the association board, says some hunters knowingly pay for an illegal hunt. Others have the wool pulled over their eyes.
"It's hard to know what the percentage is," Horne said. "A good number of hunters think they're just getting a bargain. Or an illegal outfitter will say something such as, 'I just had a bunch of hunters cancel and I'm trying to fill some slots."
To safeguard against duplicitous offers, "simply ask them what their registration number is," Horne said.
If an outfitter is operating illegally, hunters run the risk of having their hunt canceled in progress and having game confiscated if an outfitter is arrested. Knowingly contracting with an illegal outfitter could result in felony convictions for all hunters involved.
Furthermore, hunters may not have legal recourse if they are injured or the illegal outfitter doesn't provide the services they purchased.
"Awareness is the key," Horne said. "Hunting is such a big part of Colorado's economy and people have to understand that everyone benefits when hunters come here and have a good experience and return versus a bad experience where a hunt is shut down and meat is confiscated."
If you suspect illegal outfitting or poaching activity, call Operation Game Thief at 1-800-332-4155.