Bill aims to protect sensitive species by blocking public access to some location data

wildlife photography
Posted at 6:03 PM, Apr 27, 2022

DENVER — In the middle of nowhere, there are some on the hunt for the perfect shot.

For more than 20 years, Bryan Maltais has dedicated his life to photographing animals. Over the years, he’s managed to capture some of Colorado’s rarest animals in their natural habitat.

“I photograph the elk rut. Every fall, I photograph the bighorn sheep rut. I just got done photographing the greater prairie chicken lek,” Maltais said.

It’s a hunt that takes a lot of time, research and patience. Maltais has spent years exploring the state, speaking to locals or other photographers to figure out where the animals are going to be.

“You want to capture the animal doing something interesting," he said. "You want to capture the emotion of the animal."

Maltais will be the first to admit most of the time, he fails. He estimates he has a 40 percent success rate, at best, at capturing the perfect picture of his prey.

Still, he’s adamant that the pursuit of the animals is a major part of the fun.

“The search for wildlife is almost more rewarding than getting the photo because without the search, there's no adventure,” Maltais said.

Lately, though, that search has become a little too easy. People are turning to social media more than ever to not only post pictures of their rare finds but also the exact location for others to use as well.

At first, much of the data being posted was meant for the benefit of researchers for the sake of conservation. However, Maltais has noticed that more people are starting to use the data for casual tourism or even to collect sensitive species.

As a result, a lot of people are showing up to the same area at once, disturbing the habitat.

“At best, all they do is photograph it. At worst, they collect it or trample it, and that has led to what I've noticed is the reduction in wildlife species in some case,” Maltais said.

He’s noticed fewer rare animals in places they’ve habitually visited and mated for years.

Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Eagle, says she’s noticed that some people are even using Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) laws in nefarious ways to track down the exact location for some of these species.

“They basically wanted the exact location of where a big elk had been killed so they could go back to that same location, hoping to do the same thing," Donovan said. "And we know that animals are habitual."

In other instances, Donovan says some have requested the exact location of rare plant species and have used the data to go dig one up and plant it in their backyard.

In an effort to protect sensitive plants and animals, Donovan and a bipartisan group of lawmakers have brought a bill forward to allow state agencies to deny access to state records containing information about the exact location of sensitive species.

Senate Bill 22-169 would allow state agencies to deny access to records containing information that could be used to determine the location of animals or plants that are in need of conservation or the location of animals' breeding or nesting habitats.

Donovan insists the bill is not an attempt to block information but to find a balance between transparency and preservation of Colorado’s wildlife. She says Colorado Parks and Wildlife has programs to help people see wildlife in a responsible way.

David Anderson, director of the Colorado Natural Heritage Program at Colorado State University, is part of the team that helps collect and aggregate the data on the state’s sensitive species.

“The intended audience is everybody who's involved in management, development and conservation,” Anderson said. “It's a way for us to maintain our biodiversity wealth.”

Anderson has heard of a few, rare instances where people have used the data in nefarious ways. However, he says by and large, the data is used for research, and his department already has ways to restrict access to some information.

“We curate the data very carefully to make sure that they don't get out to the hands of people that shouldn't have them,” he said.

Anderson is not quite sure what to think of the bill because he believes the more information sharing that exists, the better state conservation efforts can be.

“It's really high importance that we get data to where they need to get so that we can make the very best decisions we possibly can," he said. "Locking everything up so that nobody can know where anything is doesn't help anybody."

Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattleman’s Association, also has some concerns about the bill. He says cattle ranchers use that data to find out where certain species are so that they can either keep their livestock away or take protective measures.

Wolves are one example. Ranchers say they want to know where theses animals are in particular so they can add deterrence or a night watch to keep their livestock safe.

“I think it's good for the wolf because it keeps them from getting into a situation that's problematic for the wolf. It's good for the rancher because they're able to further protect their livestock,” Fankhauser said.

With the bill, Fankhauser understands the concern, but hopes it will not prevent state agencies from working with landowners to protect both wildlife and livestock.

The Colorado Broadcasters Association has also expressed some concerns for the bill and what it will mean for information access for journalists.

No lobby organization is outwardly opposing it, but several are still calling for changes to the bill to make sure the right people will still have access to the information.

Donovan points out there is a part of the bill that would allow a person requesting certain sensitive information to go to court to explain why they need the data if they feel they were unjustly denied.

As for Maltais, he supports the bill, saying that if people truly want to see rare animals and plants, they should have to put in some work and be responsible for their mark on the habitat.

“I don't think that there's a critical need for everybody in the general public to see exactly where rare animals are, and I don't think it would really hurt that much to limit that information to them,” he said.

Afterall, Maltais insists part of the fun in getting that one perfect shot is the hunt.