A walk through Dome Rock State Wildlife Area (SWA) takes visitors through the basin of a canyon following a four-mile creek. The area’s namesake—a rock formation that looks just like it sounds—sits above, at times accompanied by bighorn sheep.

Bighorn sheep are the reason Dome Rock SWA exists in the first place. Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) bought and maintains this property to protect the animal emblazoned on its logo. For seven and a half months each year, CPW closes the area to human traffic to keep the sheep from being disturbed, especially during lambing season in the spring. However, through the summer and fall, thanks in part to the SWA’s proximity to Mueller State Park (west of Colorado Springs), Dome Rock is a popular hiking destination.

Each one of Colorado’s more than 350 SWAs—from Brownlee SWA in Jackson County, which covers two miles of Michigan River, to the 30,000-acre Bosque del Oso SWA in Las Animas County—has its own approved uses and access restrictions. But with Colorado’s growing outdoor-loving population, SWAs across the state are seeing more traffic that conflicts with their designated purpose to protect wildlife. 

In the Front Range, CPW officials say, many SWAs have appeared on free camping websites (camping is not always allowed). Elsewhere, wildlife are disrupted by non-approved uses like overlanding with off-highway vehicles or snowmobiling on winter range areas designated for big game ungulates (elk, deer). If unchecked, these uses can push animals out of areas that were specifically chosen by CPW because of their suitability as wildlife habitats. 

“I think most people are unaware of the inception of these properties and what they’re for,” says Brett Ackerman, Southeast Regional Manager for CPW. “They just see them as public land and beautiful places, and want to go and use them.”

To mitigate non-wildlife uses of SWAs and support agency funding, CPW instituted a rule earlier this year, effective starting July 1, that requires people accessing any of Colorado’s SWAs during their open period to carry a valid hunting or fishing license.  (The rule also applies to nearly 240 Colorado State Trust Lands that CPW leases for wildlife habitats.)

Visitors still need to abide by individual areas’ open/close periods and designated uses—purchasing a hunting license doesn’t authorize you to hunt outside of official seasons—but the license serves as a “pass” into the areas when they are open. License purchases also support the wildlife mission of CPW. 

“We’re not a tax-funded agency,” says Travis Duncan, CPW’s public information officer. The agency is primarily funded by the sale of passes on the parks side and hunting/fishing licenses on the wildlife side. Federal funding for wildlife purposes comes from excise taxes on firearms, ammunition, and archery equipment, but how much CPW receives is based on the number of hunting/fishing licenses sold in Colorado.

“The maintenance of properties isn’t free,” Ackerman says. “These properties—and our agency, for that matter—essentially are completely funded by hunting and angling.” 

Rather than simply closing wildlife-designated areas to non-hunters and non-fishers, CPW, over the past several years, has been looking for ways to offer access to the lands while enabling people to financially contribute to wildlife conservation. But, according to Justin Rudder, CPW’s assistant director for financial services and capital development, the federal government counted the revenue from past attempts (including habitat stamps and access permits) as “program income” and, ultimately, subtracted those revenue amounts from the federal grant money normally allocated to the agency.

“It’s a no gain,” Ackerman says about those past attempts. “Even though it seems to the user that they’re contributing [to wildlife conservation], they’re not.”

Requiring all SWA visitors to carry hunting/fishing licenses is just CPW’s latest effort to garner financial support from non-hunters and non-fishers while still allowing access to land originally purchased with hunter and angler dollars. CPW officials doubt it will be their final attempt.

“If there are solutions that don’t create those problems where the federal aid money goes away for every access permit we sell, then I think we definitely would implement that option,” Duncan says. “We just haven’t found it yet.”

For the time being, if you’re planning to visit one of Colorado’s SWAs or CPW-leased State Trust Lands, be sure to buy a license in advance, keep it in your back pocket, and of course, give the bighorn sheep space. Single- or five-day licenses are valid for the dates specified on the license; annual licenses are valid all year.

If you don’t already have a fishing or hunting license the most cost-effective option is the annual small game license ($30.11) or, for ages 65 and up, the senior fishing license ($9.85); an annual fishing license costs $35.17. You can purchase licenses online or at certified retailers like Walmart, Cabela’s, or fly shops around the state.