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While Colorado is now iconic for its natural beauty and wildlife, about 150 years ago, the state’s ecological resources had a rather bleak outlook.

Overhunting was devastating local deer, elk, pronghorn, bison, bear and bird populations; and water pollution was hurting the state’s fish and other species.

Wanting to preserve Colorado’s natural resources, the state government passed wildlife protection laws and later founded a department of game and fish.

The agency now named Colorado Parks & Wildlife celebrated its 125th anniversary on April 16.

Since their founding, the state’s parks and wildlife divisions have opened 42 state parks and hundreds of other wildlife areas, and helped save several iconic species native to Colorado. While CPW has plenty of ongoing projects and long-term goals, its 125 years of environmental conservation and wildlife protection is a history worth celebrating:

[cqembed title=”Untitled” content=”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”]April 16, 1897 – Colorado Governor Alva Adams signs House Bill 129, thereby creating the Department of Forestry, Game and Fish. The agency is charged with propagating and distributing game fish, promoting timber culture and passing and enforcing game and fish laws. The total annual budget is $10,500. The forestry portion is eventually dropped to become the Department of Game and Fish.

1903 – Colorado issued its first hunting and outfitting licenses: $25 nonresident general license; $1/day bird license ($2 first day); and $1 resident license.

1913 – With the deer population dropping quickly, the state passes legislation to protect buck deer until 1918.

1916 – Colorado imports 50 elk from Wyoming, which were released in Idaho Springs and Pueblo County’s Greenhorn Mountains, to reestablish the state’s dwindling herds. In the early 1900s, only 40,000 elk remained in North American, mostly because of unregulated market hunting. After decades of conservation efforts, Colorado is now home to approximately 280,000, which is the largest population in the world.

1940 – During this decade, the wildlife agency conducts the first bighorn sheep transplants between Georgetown and Silver Plume. As of 2022, the Georgetown herd is the third-largest in the state. The agency later completes more than 100 bighorn sheep transplants, mostly in the 1970s and 1980s. After decades of conservation efforts, Colorado has an estimated population of 7,000 bighorn sheep.

1949 – The first Colorado State Parks feasibility study suggests establishing Roxborough as one of the first state parks. However, Roxborough wasn’t established as a state park until 1975. 

1959 – The governor signs a 25-year lease with the Army Corps of Engineers for the Cherry Creek Recreation Area. The new state park welcomes its first official visitor on June 17, and 168,700 people visited it in its first year.

1960 – The state purchases 200 acres in Gilpin County, which later becomes the nucleus for Golden Gate Canyon State Park.

May 1, 1961 – The Colorado General Assembly passes legislation designating the bighorn sheep as the state animal.

1963 – The Colorado State Parks and Recreation Department merges with the Game and Fish Department to form the Colorado Game, Fish and Parks Department.

1965 – Bears are declared a game animal in Colorado.

1970 – Legislature passes mandatory hunter education and blaze orange requirements for big-game hunters.

1972 – Senate Bill 42 separates the Game, Fish and Parks Department into the Division of Wildlife and the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation within the Department of Natural Resources.

1972 – Colorado legally defines wildlife as “wild vertebrates, mollusks and crustaceans.” Nearly 800 species came under the classification of wildlife.

1975 Chatfield State Park is established.

1977 – After the state acquired a recreational lease for Barr Lake two years earlier, the new state park opens to the public.

1978 – Biologists and wildlife officers transplant 24 moose from Utah and Wyoming to Colorado’s North Park region near Walden. Over the next three decades, the state releases more than 200 additional moose from Wyoming and Utah across the state. Today, Colorado is home to more than 2,400 moose and boasts one of the fastest-growing moose populations in the lower 48 states.

1978 – After Eldorado Canyon’s owner threatened to sell the area for a rock quarry, public outcry prompts the state to buy the canyon and create Eldorado Canyon State Park.

1980 – The Colorado Division of Wildlife director encourages hunters to clean up their own sport and, in the 1980-81 budget request, asks for funding to start a new program called Operation Game Thief to help crack down on poaching. 

1982 – The Colorado General Assembly approves a new lottery program with certain proceeds to benefit state and local park systems.

1990 – A $5 Colorado waterfowl stamp is required to hunt. 

1992 – Colorado voters approve the passage of Amendment 8, the Great Outdoors Colorado Amendment. This directs all state lottery proceeds to parks, open space and wildlife.

1994 – The greenback cutthroat trout is named Colorado’s state fish.

2011 – Colorado State Parks merges with the Colorado Division of Wildlife to form Colorado Parks & Wildlife. The Parks and Wildlife Commission is also established.

May 18, 2013 – Staunton State Park opens to the public. The park, which is in Park and Jefferson counties, was built from a parcel first donated in 1986 by Frances Hornbrook Staunton. Subsequent parcels were acquired in the late 1990s and early 2000s. CPW purchased the final parcel in 2006 to reach the current park’s 3,828-acre land base.

July 2021 – Colorado Parks & Wildlife begins a four-year study of the Front Range’s bald eagle population. The agency has record of more than 90 breeding pairs between Denver and Wyoming. This is an immense population growth since the late 1970s, when there were only three nests in Colorado.

Dec. 27, 2021 – Colorado Parks & Wildlife acquires and establishes the Pals Family State Wildlife area between Empire and Georgetown. After the property owners proposed turning the area into a quarry, local partners partnered with CPW to preserve the land and protect the local bighorn sheep.