The Colorado Parks And Wildlife Agency (CPW) will begin enforcing new, sweeping, seasonal restrictions for shed antler and horn collection beginning March 2, 2018.
Thereafter, the closure will be in effect from January 1-April 30, annually, and will apply to all public lands west of I-25, with some additional closures effecting several game management units in the Gunnison Basin. These new restrictions will not apply to shed collection on private lands.
The purpose of this ground breaking regulation is to mitigate the recreational impacts on wintering big game animals, at a time when they are most vulnerable to stress and increased mortality. The restrictions were developed to address the specific needs and issues surrounding Colorado’s unique wildlife resource.
Repeat, or egregious violators are subject to a fine, and a levy of five suspension points applied to the application or purchase of any licenses issued by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The accumulation of 20 or more points within a five year period can result in the suspension of hunting and fishing rights for up to five years.
Additionally, the possession of each individual antler can be considered a separate violation, with additional fines for each, in aggregate. Violators may also be charged with the harassment of wildlife. Other federal, state, and county agencies can coordinate with CPW in enforcement action.
According to CPW, “If you are hiking in an area where there is currently a shed antler and horn collecting closure and you see an antler or horn, you are advised to leave it alone. There is now way for a CPW officer to differentiate between you and someone who entered the area for the purpose of shed collecting”.
The requirement of a priced permit, or license, for shed collection is not required at this time, though it may be required in the future.
…An elk bugle echoes down and around us in the half-light of early morning, as the towering walls of Dark Canyon take over the skyline. The high, whistling notes are nearly overcome by the falls above, the waters now airborne, flying from the cliffs towards Anthracite Creek. We catch our breath as we climb up the Devil’s Staircase, towards the great unknowns of the Ruby Range and the perils of the Ragged Mountains…
No, this is not the scene of some campy, dramatic flick, as mysterious and foreboding as it may sound. But it was the backdrop, with some poetic license included, of a monumental event in the big game hunting world. It is here, in 1899, that John Plute of Crested Butte, Colorado looked down his rifle barrel and laid down one of the largest set of elk antlers ever recorded.
He has quite a history, this bull, and I can only imagine that his story only survives because of luck and some divine providence. It is said that Mr. Plute was a good hunter, and he often traded wild game for the goods that he needed. More than likely, he was usually not too concerned about the size of a bull’s headgear. Perhaps, in this case, he was.
He was also known to be a colorful character. An inveterate bachelor, a miner, and a mountain man, he traded the head to the local saloon keeper in payment of an overdue bar bill. It later passed to the stepson of the saloon owner, who dragged it out of storage and submitted the first unofficial measurement of its antlers in 1955.
The formalities took a little longer yet, until it was officially recognized by the Boone and Crockett Club as the new World’s Record Elk in 1961, The final score came in at a jaw-dropping 442 3/8 points.
Photographs simply don’t convey the magnificence of this specimen, and you can barely fit it within the view finder anyway. In person it is very nearly overwhelming, and it takes some time to evaluate its true size as the eye struggles to gain perspective.
The rack at its greatest spread tapes at over 51 inches, with 7 points on one side and 8 points on the other. One antler has a basal circumference of over 12 inches, and two points are more than 25 inches long. When first mounted many years after the kill, it was fitted with the biggest elk cape to be found. It was probably not quite big enough.
I have been fortunate to hunt some of the nation’s top trophy areas, and I have come across some big bulls in my time. A 325″ class bull is bigger than many elk hunters will ever encounter; a 350″ elk will really get your attention. I have yet to ground check a Boone and Crockett class elk, though it has not been for lack of trying.
Once, on a Colorado bowhunt, I very nearly harvested a bull that most certainly was approaching that magical 400 point plateau. The memory of that guy can still keep me up at night, and I doubt that I will ever forget the sense of awe he installed within me. I can hardly imagine another 40 or 50 inches of bone on top of his skull.
The Plute bull was the World Record for over 30 years, and many thought that it would never be beaten. The glory days of elk hunting appeared to be long gone, after all, …or were they?
In 1995, the elk hunting world shook once more when an antler buyer purchased a head that he had seen in the back of a pickup truck. Killed by an Arizona cattle rancher in 1968 and never measured, it was eventually determined to be bigger than the bull of Crested Butte. Even then, it only beat out the existing world record by less than 1/2″ of total score.
Obviously, Mr. Plute never knew just how big his elk really was. It does not sound that it would have mattered much to him anyway, though I probably should not speak as if I know. Very little has been passed down about his everyday doings, or his end. Some have said that he died while breaking a spirited horse; others have said that no one really knows. Perhaps the truth of his ultimate fate is lost upon the winds and snow fields of the wild lands that he roamed, like many men of his era. In my way of thinking that only adds another layer to the legend, and to the mysterious nature of a place that once held a bull such as this.
It is impossible to know the full extent of this elk’s legacy. No doubt his genetics still warms the blood of his countless descendants, banked for the day when they can fully express their immeasurable potential. Who knows how many elk like him, have lived, and died, without being seen?
The head now hangs at The Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce, which might seem an ignominious end to such an important animal. Perhaps it may not be the best place to honor him, but I do not get to make that kind of choice. For most, he is a curiosity and a fine tourist attraction, though I doubt that the uninitiated can grasp its true significance. For my part I am grateful for the opportunity to admire him in any way that I can.
The Dark Canyon of Anthracite Creek has yet to hit my eyes for real, but it will. I am drawn to it, curious too, and my hunter’s eye wants to see what it will see. Hunt there, I will, just to say that I did. I hope that John Plute would approve.
Most of all, I would like to think that a giant elk like him still roams those mountains. In my dreams I see him there, hanging back in the dark timber just out of reach of mortal men, suspended on the edge of time and the longing of hunter’s soul.
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And I Lived To Tell About It…
Sometimes in life it is much better to be lucky than good, and that applies to big game hunts too. I was lucky enough to draw a Colorado Mountain goat tag in 2015, and that’s plenty enough to celebrate. I was lucky in the hunt too, in many more ways than one.
And I did get my billy. And I did live to tell about it.
I made the shot with very little legal shooting light remaining in the long, end of summer day. The good news is that my hunting partner was prescient enough to snap a photograph just after we found him. My camera had decided to quit working, and I would have probably forgotten anyway had it not. I was much too preoccupied with trying to stay upright.
The not so good news is that this is the only photo taken before it was caped and quartered and stowed in our packs.
Don’t get me wrong. I am quite grateful to have it. After all, it is not an easy task to take any kind of photo while balancing upon the slick rocks of an extreme slope in a cold and driving rain. That was the easy part too, compared with the dangerous, almost death-defying hike back down to our spike camp.
We had not planned to be caught on the face of a mountain such as this, far above timberline in the deep black night. Extreme hunts can call for extreme measures, and a mountain goat is nothing if not an extreme animal. Still, I would not recommend such a predicament to anyone, except perhaps another goat hunter. Only another goat or sheep hunter would understand the beauty of it all.
It was, however, the perfect ending to a grueling and treacherous adventure. Adventure and grand pursuit before breakfast I say, or in this case, a long overdue dinner. It was a mountain goat hunt, after all, and I got all that I could have bargained for, and more. I would not have had it any other way.
I don’t mind saying that I could not have pulled this hunt off without my friends and brothers from another mother. You know who you are, and I owe you big. Very, Very big…
May you draw a tag soon – so I can return the favor, God, and screaming leg muscles willing! And for all of my friends that I have not yet met still waiting for a tag, please let us know when you do.
We can’t wait to hear about your encounters with the peaks and your mountain goat success. With luck, you will get the job done much earlier in the day!
A seasoned and wise old billy of the mountain goat kind is many things, yet above all things, an extreme and elemental force defined by chilling winds, lightning, and mother nature in all her raw and naked glory. He can be found, if you dare, in that dizzying land of avalanche chutes, jumbled boulder fields, and rarefied air far above timberline. And find him you must, for he will not find you.
Add to this mix a man who longs to do just that, yet wonders if the body will still follow the wishes of the mind. Somehow the mountain slopes have become even steeper over the years, and the realities of the inevitable aging of flesh and bone are fast approaching like ominous, black-dark thunderheads over the peaks. This combination of animal and man may or may not be a match made in heaven. But it is a miraculous association none the less, built solidly upon a foundation of hope and lofty dreams.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I was successful in Colorado’s annual big game application lottery this year, and I don’t mind saying that I must have been a perplexing sight at the Post Office a few weeks ago. Only another big game hunter would recognize the shell-shocked posture, wide open mouth, and classic thousand yard stare of a person holding that coveted, newly printed tag.
Ten years are a long time to wait for a hunting permit, so I hope you will forgive me for not being able to think too clearly just yet. The receipt of what is most likely a once in a lifetime permission slip has a way of immediately reorganizing one’s pressing list of priorities.
You might say that the mere thought of this adventure gives me considerable pause, as well as a strange and vague uneasiness in the innards. After all, mountain goat hunting is not for the faint of heart under almost any circumstances. Stories of its practical difficulty and sheer physicality are legendary, and in fact, sometimes terrifying.
Just two years ago a goat hunter died not far from where I will be hunting, and I doubt that I will be able to discount that kind of fact. He had been successful too, but then fell from a cliff while packing out his goat.
My license is for Game Management Unit 12 in the Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness Area near Aspen, and it would be hard to find a more picturesque backdrop for a backcountry expedition. It may also be one of the more challenging units in the state due to limited access and other factors. In other words, it is brutally rugged and unapologetically unforgiving. The goats are a long, hard hike with a heavy pack from most almost any trailhead.
Legally, I may harvest a male or female goat, and it is a rifle tag. However, in Colorado the regulations allow me to hunt with a bow & arrow if I so choose, and I do. I was born a bowhunter, and a man must stay true to himself in matters such as this
Perhaps it is testing the fates to leave the rifle at home, since it is not easy to get the job done no matter what the weapon. I would also like to locate a mature billy and place myself within range of my recurve bow, a short-range instrument to say the least. But I’ve never had trouble creating boundary stretching goals for myself, and there’s nothing wrong with setting the sights on high.
It would be easy to become overwhelmed with all of the logistics involved. A great deal of contingencies must come together to be successful, which means of course that a lot of things can also go wrong. It would be fair to say that this hunt begins when you open that long-awaited envelope, and I suspect that I will never really feel fully prepared. And the fact is, even though I hunted them in Alaska forty years ago, I really don’t know all that much about goats.
Luckily, Douglas Chadwick does. A wildlife biologist, Chadwick spent many years studying this fascinating animal and famously called him “The Beast The Color of Winter”, in his book so aptly named. He was the first biologist to immerse himself in their everyday doings so completely, and to read his words about his life among the goats leaves one in awe and admiration of an animal that frolics so easily upon a place of such majesty and formidable beauty.
Every aspect of a mountain goat is improbable. At first glance their outward appearance can severely contrast with the splendor around them, for they do seem to be built from an odd and incongruent collection of body parts. They perform highly impossible, unbelievable feats in impassable terrain, clinging to tiny footholds on cliffs where even angels fear to tread.
Few people get to spend much time with them, if at all. If you do the encounters are more like the desperate escapades of a tethered astronaut who must return to base after a measured length of time, or face terminal consequences. To hunt them is a hard-won and precious gift.
Yet, Chadwick also refers to them as creatures of habit, perhaps to a fault. Throughout the year they move from winter and summer ranges as conditions dictate, returning to the same areas each season. In late summer and early fall they will often feed in the same sunlit meadow in the early morning, and then return along a well-worn path to bed for the day on the same protective ledge.
That’s a very exciting bit of news, since I am a creature of habit myself. I also have a large reservoir of patience, gathered over a lifetime of hunting experiences.
There’s some other things I know too. Concealment and ambush are the bowhunter’s stock in trade, and it is an extremely effective hunting strategy under the right circumstances. It is one of the few advantages in our little bag of tricks, and if you know anything at all about the severe limitations of archery equipment, you will know that we need and welcome any advantage that we can find. It’s not much, but it is…enough.
And so, the time is at hand. The exercise program and the preparations have begun.
“Let the games begin”, I cry, and I pray that the arrow flies swift and true. I plan to savor every breathless, lung-busting, leg-muscles-turned-to-jelly thrill of it all.
You can believe that I will be in that special place called mountain goat country this September; watching, high on a ridge where brilliant blue sky crashes hard against rock and snow. I shall sit with back to granite, eternally waiting for that great white beast to turn in my direction. Hanging there on the mountain, part of it, with a shining smile upon my face and a razor-sharp shaft on the string.
Wish for me to possess, if just for a moment, the fortitude and wilderness spirit of the goats themselves. Wish me the providence and predatory skills of all high country hunters everywhere, be they two-legged or four. I am no doubt going to need all the moral support I can muster, and perhaps a portable oxygen tank to go.
It is what mountain dreams and big adventures are all about, and it looks like I am on my way at last, god willing…
Animal signs and tracks have always fascinated me, no doubt encouraged by the knowledge that a living, breathing creature just laid them down and might be standing just over the next rise. Tracks are a record of nature’s wanderings and little doings, scratched and scribed on mother earth’s own back. They are placed there, as new each time, for those who wish to follow and investigate.
Temporary and ephemeral, they sing with animal promise and life eternal, bursting of meanings far greater than their small impression would indicate. They speak of purpose and plan, reward and desire, and adventure for all.
Tracks lead, I must follow. I aspire to ponder the possibilities of their message, and to attempt to practice what they may wish to teach. I wish could read them better. Maybe I can decipher them in this lifetime. I am determined to try.
I am a particularly fond of elk, and I am a dedicated student of elk tracks. Their shape intrigues me, and I like the way they cut deeply into the ground as if searching for the planet’s center, releasing the earth’s rich, dark aroma to mingle with their heavy musk. There is nothing subtle about the way that an elk marches through life, churning and slinging dirt and mud while becoming even more solidly rooted to the ground. It grounds my wandering boots as well. They pull me deeper into the ground with each step. I feel freer, calmer, and more fully connected to my life.
Their tracks tell their story, and I gain insight and know the characters more intimately through the added layers of each successive chapter. It is a long and complex tale. I have trailed along wherever and whenever I could. Later, my mind wanders, and I am on the move again, reliving old trails and experiences even when my body is somewhere else.
The characters in this tale are many and varied, each with their own unique qualities, motivations, and point of view. I can read the developing plot on the ground, at my feet, and just ahead. Here are tracks large and small, first meandering slowly, then running. Some are evenly spaced and calm, some are random and hurried. Yearling elk lay them down, as do old dry cows, new-born calves, and antlered bulls small and large.
They document the every day struggles, their hopes, their fears, joys, and occasional sufferings. I can picture in my visions the upturned head of an alert mother, nostrils quivering and searching for unwanted and dangerous scents. Ahead of her, I see a battle-scarred old warrior bull, standing tall in its last footprint, bugling and aching for a fight. It’s all written upon the ground, in the signs of animals and tracks.
Tracks have led me to vibrantly green, sundappled forests so beautiful it was difficult not to cry. It was tempting to lie down there forever, quiet and unmoving, until my body turned to stone, left to weather and crack and fall upon the earth.
I stood again, to wind my way through sage covered flats, with pounding rain and fog so thick that one is forced to look only down, watching the rain drops from your hat land squarely in the elk track below. Shielding my eyes from stinging, wind-driven snowflakes, I have waded through the unbearable snows of a terrible winter to find a calf’s last struggles against barbed wire and fence, too high.
More than once I have explored an anxious trail of tracks patterned by a solitary elk, and observed the paw prints of a mountain lion, or a bear, on top. Moving on intently, I have found only piles of hair or a few shards of bone in the last impression, with no elk left to pursue.
Backtracking upon tracks I was stepping on, I have been confronted with the reality of mountain lion or bear tracks covering my tracks, in turn. Tracks have led me to the center of nowhere, and back again. On the way I found myself, staring back. I am always looking for the next track to chase, eager to discover where it may lead.
My life is surrounded by elk and their tracks. apparently, I’ve made sure it worked out that way, without fully realizing it. Tracks lead past my house on their way to hay fields below, and I often stand in them on my way to our garden. Even at work, I look for them out of the corner of my eye, knowing that they are often just yards away from my comfortable shoes.
I work as a security guard, and my “office” is a “shack” at the main entrance of a golf course, country club, and home development. The sprawling property is interspersed with large homes on small lots, with much open space, and for now, many vacant house lots. A river runs through it. Public lands are near and expansive. Elk and mule deer are a commonly seen, along with a variety of smaller animals, birds and waterfowl. I am a most fortunate person.
You might say I have a room with a view. Red rocky ridges, sparkling clear water, and manicured greenery wrap around and fill the big windows of the small building. To the south, Mt. Sopris looms above us and refuses to be ignored. Broad shouldered and solid, with a long, deep blanket of shimmering snow fields below her twin peaks, it is one of my favorite and most comforting friends. The Ute Indians revered her first, and named her “Mother Mountain”.
Somehow I feel that she is watching, and that she is caring and protective of the many beings down below. I look to her often, and wonder what she would have to say about our human doings. She already knows that all is not always well in paradise.
“Mother Mountain” has a grand view of the “eagle tree” on the property, and a section of the development has been declared off-limits to all activity in an effort to honor the pair of bald eagles that raise their young here every summer. It is a grandfather of all trees, a towering ponderosa with heavy, thick branches, perfectly placed on the bank of a sweeping curve in the shallow river.
The eagles have been raising their young here for decades, perhaps millennia, or more. They have seen a lot, these eagles. The place would not be the same without them and it is a credit to the developer and others who planned it.
In the spring and summer people talk of them and wish to see them. They call for the daily eagle report. They are famous, they are legend. Homeowners and club members can see them whenever they wish. Outsiders cannot. We must protect the eagles from disturbance, we say. To appease the general public, we occasionally host a coordinated observation tour to show everyone that all is well in eagle world. It’s the least we can do.
However, limited and brief access does not satisfy the public demand. Most of the excited, would be visitors arrive by vehicle unannounced, without appointment. They wish to watch the eagles and they want to see them very badly. They are curious about their eaglets and they can’t wait to take their picture. One of the parent’s may return with a freshly caught and wiggling trout to feed the young, and they want to encourage them on. For their own reasons they are humans who want to be part of something else, something wild.
Birders and eagle lovers can be very determined folks, and they do not like to be turned away. But we do, because we must, and we can. After all, it is private property, you see. Members only, I’m afraid.
The private in private property can define and expose some harsh realities. It means that something, in this case the eagles, belongs to someone else. They are not for you. When I deprive someone of the eagles, I know that it was not my idea and that I am only doing my job, but that does not make me feel any better. I must wonder, as I turn to Mt. Sopris and ask, what would “mother” say”?
My head is out of the office as much as it is in, and when I slide the door open to greet a guest I cannot help but look in the direction of the river and the eagle tree. Perhaps I can catch a glimpse of that distinctive white head flashing in the light of a low sun, as it soars calmly over the back of an elk on its return to the comfort of the family nest.
After sunset, the night belongs to the elk, particularly during the long, cold nights of winter. I often can hear them calling back and forth to each other, conversing in a language as old as time. They paw and crunch through the snow just out of range of approaching headlights. On moonlit nights I can spot them weaving around the trees near the building, a ghostly apparition that begs me to leave my confines and join them. Unobservable to the casual traveler and yet so close, it is our little secret, the elk and I.
During the worst days of our long winters, the elk congregate on the property to escape the heavy snows of the high country. Skiers on their way to Aspen, most of them apparently from elkless places, slam on their brakes and leave the highway. They can’t believe their eyes. They shower me with questions. Is that an elk? How many are there? Where did they go? How long will they be here? They want to see the elk, and they want to see them very badly. They need to see them. Why are the elk here, they ask? I do not know the answer to that last one, but I am glad they asked. That is the million dollar question, after all.
I want to grant the them access, because I love the fact that they are so completely enthralled with an animal that I love too. Instead, I must say no, and turn them away. It is that private property thing again, rising to rear its ugly head. The elk are standing on private property, I explain. It is a private subdivision and a private club. The message is clear. They are “our elk”, not yours. They may wander about on public land most of the year, but they are “our elk” now. They are not for you. I cannot let you past. I cannot accommodate your request.
Most of the time they look past me and through me as if I’m not there, eager for another elk sighting. They plead and they reason, hoping to gain some toehold to hang on to and work a crack to break my resolve. They cannot believe I am blocking their way, incredulous at my lack of compassion and understanding regarding their need. I stand uninvolved, professional, resolute. They do not know that I wish for them to see them too. I cannot let them see the inner workings of my conflicted mind. If I only could…If they only knew…
The west is not the west that I came to 35 years ago. More populated, yes, but different in ways apart from the addition of people. Attitudes have changed. Colorado has become more and more like…other places. It has never ceased to amaze me how people come here to escape the problems of the place they have come from – and then promptly try to change the new place back into the old place they just worked so hard to escape. Too often our stunning views become valued most for the picture through the picture window in the great room of the palatial house on the new hobby ranch estate.
Here, as in many areas throughout the west, the trophy houses perch like sentinels above the river, on guard against the boatman who pass on the public waters below. In Colorado only the navigable and flowing water is public; the river bottoms and shorelines are private. May the heavens part and jagged thunderbolts smite the poor, unwashed soul who touches the river bottom with the metal of boat or anchor, or wader covered foot. They are watching, and the fish policemen are but a moment away. I should know. I am one.
The fish, of course, belong to the public. The finny creatures are managed by people who work for a public wildlife management agency, which is funded with public funds, paid primarily by private citizens who purchase a public fishing license with their private dollars, which pays for the public fish managed by the public wildlife management agency. Yet, there seems to be some confusion over who owns the fish.
The private property proclamations and numerous no trespassing signs are placed strategically and obviously to remind the boatmen not to stop. The signs imply the desired message. You may pass but do not enter. Wet your lines and be on your way. The area is designated as catch and release, the sign says, so put our fish back too. Like the elk, and the eagle, they are “our fish”, and not for you. I blissfully fished on these river banks many, many times over the years, with the eagles over my shoulders. There were no signs or houses then. I quit fishing here, a lifetime ago. Somehow all of the joy has long since been squeezed out of these troubled waters.
I like my job well enough. Like many people I have too many bills to pay, a mortgage to service, and promises to keep. I must work, but the duty does not particularly suit me. I struggle with my inner wranglings, and find it difficult to relate to people on equal or near equal terms, in an effort to provide what they need. Mind reading and the decoding of a person’s unspoken and true desire is not one of my strong suits. Oh how I wish that it was.
On the other hand, my desire is clear. I would prefer to be glued to a hot track, or directly connected to a pulsating and surging fish. I want to be the eagle, to fly away, circling ever upward and screaming fiercely in a bold, blue sky. I do my best to smile. No one has ever asked my opinion about anything substantial. In the end, I am a glorified Walmart Greeter, waving contentedly like a trained and tethered circus monkey, guarding a lifestyle at my back that I could never attain financially, but would never chose if I could.
To be fair, many of the residents love the elk and respect and cherish the gift of wildlife around them. They wish to help much more than harm. Most of the rest are nice enough. Some of the others, not so much. Some of the not so nice have long since moved away. Selling out, they were eager to move on to the next better place and conquer new-found worlds. Godspeed. I wish them well. Continue reading Sacred Ground – The Fate of Elk & Man→
“Some time ago I walked around to the back of a big, empty house and came upon elk tracks on the cement patio and walkways of a hidden courtyard. Tall evergreen trees swayed from the light winter wind and murmured in the hushed overtones of a holy cathedral. It had just snowed, and the tracks stood out like a beacon in the dazzling mid-morning sun.
The sight stopped me quite dead in my stride. It was as if I had walked squarely into the solid concrete walls of some plainly obvious yet unseen building, as a great hand with a large extended finger descended from heaven to point them out in quivering disgust.
Kneeling in the snow by a gleaming steel barbecue, I felt light-headed and unsure as my eyesight blurred and the earth moved beneath me. It was all I could do to control my revulsion and rising anger as the world slowly came back in focus.
Struggling to rise, I could only begin to wonder what had caused such a powerful vision. I may never know why the full force of it all had hit me so hard on that day and at that particular moment. But it was real, and it was painful.
I only know that there is something terribly wrong about the placement of elk tracks on concrete. It is an assault on the sensibilities of common sense and a great festering wound upon all that is spirited and free. It screams of wrongness and wrong-headedness, and of human cleverness driven past it’s acceptable limit. The tracks document a trail of horrible mistakes and destructive paths. It is a mere glimpse of a dark and terrible future reality.
No man should have to witness it, nor bear it. No man should have to try. The snow will melt and the tracks will disappear, leaving behind them only the promise of what might have been. I can read meaning into most kinds of animal tracks, but no matter how hard I may try I can find no sign on the cruel and heartless soul of concrete walks and driveways.
I am, and have always been, a hunter. I must have fresh tracks to follow”.
I harvested a sleek young mule deer doe today, dropped cleanly with a fast-moving .270 caliber bullet well before the crack of the rifle had begun to die away in the thin mountain air. It was a fitting end to a hunt that had barely begun, yet at the same time a fine beginning to something so much more. Why then, did it cause a small pang of concern, like I had done something somehow wrong and irreversible?
It had not been a difficult hunt in the rugged landscape around me, where so often in the past it had been exactly the opposite. She had been standing with another doe just above a dirt access track stretching through a small parcel of public ground, and when the bullet hit her she had made one jump and came to rest in the middle of the road. A quick field dressing and a short flip to the waiting tailgate and she was off to the garage to hang and cool, and it won’t be long before some savory steaks and roasts hit the plate. It’s what dreams of wild game dinners are made of.
It was a planned meat hunt first and foremost, and in that respect it was a mission accomplished for which I do not apologize. I am a fan of mule deer for the table, though I do acknowledge that many people would disagree. To be honest, I would also admit that although I do like it, for the most part this western venison is not my favorite big game offering.
Given a choice, I would rather walk a substantial distance for some expertly grilled chops from a properly fed mid-west Whitetail. I would, and have, walked heroic distances for the well-earned privilege of packing back a heavy load of elk meat. I’ve also worn out a considerable swath of boot leather in pursuit of mule deer in all kinds of terrain, mostly in search of the all too few with some heavy horn on top of their head. I have not always been willing to walk so far just for a meal of mule deer.
This past Spring it occurred to me to try something different this year, and I don’t begrudge myself an easy hunt for a change. Lord knows that I and many of my friends deserve something short of an expedition occasionally, and one’s goals do tend to develop over time. I also wanted to give a mule deer a fresh chance in the culinary department, thinking that perhaps it might be best not to judge things on the taste of tough old buckskin taken well past their prime. A freezer full of protein also does wonders to combat the ever rising grocery bill.
The state of Colorado does issue a limited number of anterless deer permits for the regular rifle seasons, with an emphasis on “not too many”. To my surprise I was lucky enough to draw a license for an area close to my home, which made it all the more enjoyable. The rest, shall we say, is in the books.
What I failed to mention is that they were the only two deer that we saw that morning, in spite of a three-mile hike through some once great deer country and then, later, a short drive to another area. Nor did I say that I could easily see two houses from where my doe had come to lay, and I knew that there were several more not far over the hill.
Such is the reality of things in the ever more settled west. The deer are not always located in some far often mountain valley, and sometimes you must hunt them where they are. And sometimes you hunt them in places that you used to hunt, years before, in a place where not long ago there were no houses to see.
Things are changing rapidly in the Rocky Mountains, and the once vast Mule Deer herds have been dramatically impacted by that change. Populations have been in serious decline in Colorado and other states, for reasons that are not so clear and steeped in worried speculation. To be blunt, Mule Deer are in serious trouble, and their ultimate fate as a species is in real jeopardy.
I, for one, did not have to read a detailed report to come to that sad conclusion. The evidence is everywhere; the end result devastating. Herd sizes have dropped by 50% since I moved to Colorado in the mid 1970’s, and the absence of deer is remarkably obvious. As a result, the number of hunting permits have been severely reduced and tightly controlled, with less than encouraging results.
For some time it is has not been easy for a resident of Colorado to obtain a deer tag of any kind, and when you do it can be difficult to locate a legal buck. Finding a trophy animal can prove nearly impossible for even the best of hunter’s. It’s just not easy being a deer hunter these days.
Unfortunately, the worst may be yet to come. It is debatable whether the herds have stopped their terrifying free fall and reached a period of relative stability. Why then, one might ask, are there any doe tags at all?
What is difficult to pin down are the exact reasons for the decline, and public opinion is wide-ranging and increasingly heated. There is great debate over the effectiveness of the overall state big game management plan, and one wonders if there is really any plan at all. One hand does not always appear to be aware of what the other is doing across state agencies, and I can only hope that in this case the harvesting of a doe somehow contributes to the overall health of the deer herd in this particular game management unit.
I have heard most of the standard theories of cause and reaction. Of course I have a few of my own, or simply evaluate all of the factors in my own way. Some people are quick to put the blame on an overabundance of coyotes and other predators, and no doubt there is some truth to that. Others blame highway mortality, road building and natural gas drilling, and all forms of habitat loss. More than a few people say that what deer habitat that is left is of poor nutritional quality, and there is an increasing effort underway to remove sections of old growth forest and range and replace them with rejuvenated browse and plant communities. The long-term drought certainly has not helped, and maybe, just maybe, there are now just too many elk.
More than likely it is caused by a combination of all of the above, and I don’t know how it will turn out for the deer in the final outcome. Nor does anyone else out there really know for sure. It may be that Mule Deer are simply incapable of tolerating or forgiving the daily trespasses of man, and that their loss to history is essentially assured. That would be unspeakably sad.
I do know that the mule deer is a western icon of immeasurable proportions, and the Rocky Mountains would simply be a hollow and soulless shell of itself without them.
Call me selfish, but the possibility of their disappearance is not acceptable. I intend to smile over their big ears and bouncing, improbable gait for however many years that I have left, and I hope that you can too. To watch them brings pure and simple joy. To hunt them is an honor and a gift that should never be taken for granted.
I hope that the current trend of decline can be permanently reversed, for their sake and for our’s. I wish that there will always be Mule Deer to hunt, along with a place to hunt them that remains wild and free. Most of all I would like to shake the sinking feeling that I am hunting one of the last female’s of her glorious and irreplaceable kind.
Thankfully, that is still quite far from the truth, at least for now. It is not too late to help ensure that such an unthinkable day never comes.
In the meantime, I will do my best to use all parts of my animal as gratefully as possible. I look forward to many fine meals ahead, provided by an animal I both respect and cherish. It makes each small bite a most precious encounter.
Coyote Predation is without doubt a significant factor in the overall health of mule deer populations. Common sense would lead one to believe that they must certainly be extremely effective at locating newborn and younger fawns. The literature is also replete with the idea that they are quick to make a meal out of the weak and the sick in any group. But are they capable, or willing, to go against a full-grown adult?
That question was answered, to my satisfaction anyway, one spring morning while turkey hunting in a remote mountain meadow…
“One hot afternoon in August I sat under the elm, idling, when I saw a deer pass across a small opening a quarter-mile east. A deer trail crosses our farm, and at this point any deer traveling is briefly visible from the shack.
I then realized that half an hour before I had moved my chair to the best spot for watching the deer trail; that I had done this habitually for years, without being clearly conscious of it. This led to the thought that by cutting some brush I could widen the zone of visibility. Before night the swath was cleared, and within the month I detected several deer which otherwise could likely have passed unseen.
The new deer swath was pointed out to a series of weekend guests for the purpose of watching their later reactions to it. It was soon clear that most of them forgot it quickly, while others watched it, as I did, whenever chance allowed. The upshot was the realization that there are four categories of outdoorsmen: deer hunters, duck hunters, bird hunters, and non-hunters. These categories have nothing to do with sex or age, or accoutrements; they represent four diverse habits of the human eye. The deer hunter habitually watches the next bend; the duck hunter watches the skyline; the bird hunter watches the dog; the non-hunter does not watch.
When the deer hunter sits down he sits where he can see ahead, and with his back to something. The duck hunter sits where he can see overhead, and behind something. The non-hunter sits where he is comfortable. None of these watches the dog. The bird hunter watches only the dog…”
From the chapter entitled “The Deer Swath” in A Sand County Almanac”, by Aldo Leopold.
I read this for the first time many years ago, and the basic premise of it has stuck in my mind ever since. It is classic Leopold, whose writings always seems to leave behind more thought-provoking questions than he answers. He was, and still is, one of the preeminent teachers of the natural world.
Looking back, I realize now that I have always sat with shoulders squared up to something at my back, watching.
Perhaps I am just a deer hunter at heart. It is the promise of deer, for which I wait.