On the hunt in Colorado: A successful elk harvest amid downward national trend of youth hunters

A bull moose takes in some morning sun in Rocky Mountain National Park on May 27, 2020 in Estes Park. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

WHITE RIVER NATIONAL FOREST – On the fifth day of the hunt, he appeared before me and crossed a pasture 300 meters downhill between aspen and pine forests, with antlers casting long shadows on the morning snow. A crown atop the animal king of Colorado high country.

A bull moose.

I was sitting on a ridge 10,000 feet in public land a month ago, when the muscle memory calms a surge of adrenaline. The black butt of a 270 Winchester rifle fits into the crease of my right shoulder. The moose, with long legs bearing its muscular body and thick brown fur, walks slowly into view of my telescope. A peaceful silence is about to erupt with a sudden …

Breath in breath out.

ANXIOUS.

Hot lead fires from a long silver barrel. Seconds pass as minutes. The explosion echoes across frozen mountain valleys and a gentle breeze carries the scent of gunpowder. My heart is pounding and my eye returns to scope to find the moose … unharmed. I have missed.

A young bull is frozen in its tracks. His antlers tilt back. He inhales the cool mountain air.

The hunt is not over yet.

***

This Thanksgiving, a time to honor family customs, the tradition of moose harvesting in the Rocky Mountain backcountry diminishes.

According to the most recent findings, the number of hunters across the country fell by 2.2 million between 2011 and 2016 issued by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The same study found the most significant decline among younger hunters aged 25-34 years. In 1991 their demographics made up 28% of all American hunters. That millennial share fell to 16% in 2016.

RELATED: Fewer youths are going to hunt, leaving hunters worried about the future of the sport

In Colorado, the total number of big game hunting applications decreased by 39,119 between 2018 and 2020. Anyone, including non-hunters, who enjoy the outdoor space managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife should be concerned.

“Hunters and fishermen are the primary funders of conservation efforts when it comes to habitat improvement and biological research necessary for healthy wildlife populations across the state,” said Travis Long, CPW’s national coordinator for hunter education. “Part of the older hunter population is declining and is not always supplemented by the younger hunter population. It has a long-term impact on how we fund our agency as stewards of wildlife and the habitat for those wildlife.

Big game hunting in Colorado also suffered from the effects of an active wildfire season. In 2020, CPW reports that it processed approximately 12,000 tag refunds with an estimated impact of $ 3 million. The application procedure for reimbursement remains open.

Last month, when my family started our annual moose hunt, an emergency helicopter flew over us on our hike up the mountain. It carried a water bucket, presumably empty, for air combat elsewhere. We had to be careful in dry conditions, but two days later our concerns were allayed.

Praise Mother Nature. It snowed almost a foot.

***

I cannot tell you my exact location. Call it a well-kept secret among family and trusted friends.

Just know that in the mid-1980s, a few Front Range outdoorsmen studied maps of the White River National Forest – a sprawling 2.3 million acres of mountain recreation in northwestern Colorado – for the most remote location to successfully mount moose. to hunt in the highlands. .

Their search led to the base of what appears to be an extinct volcano, about 2 miles from a dead end on the nearest public access road, where lava rocks are scattered across rolling mountain meadows, thick wood, and sheer cliffs. The area is not accessible to motorized vehicles, so camp is towed up the mountain in packs or pulled on a wheeled cart. The hunters took refuge in sleeping bags and a tent, tucked away in the wood by a spring pond for drinking water.

Three decades later – with my dad, Dan, one of the original members of the hunting company – we return to the same spot every fall for a second season moose hunt. Our annual commitment, with the necessities of life in an unforgiving climate, is a reflection of the hunting success. But it is not our only calling.

My older brother, Matt, shot a moose late in the afternoon this year towards the end of the hunt. Dressing a 500-pound animal in the wild in the field is difficult. Multiple hands and knives are required to skin and quarter the moose; including the back straps, tenderloin and heart. We packed the meat in hygienic bags, placed them in large frame packs and carried the moose down the mountain. My shoulders ached from the about 60 pound suit as we marched through the snow – exhausted mentally and physically. We had not eaten. The temperature dropped.

Funny how nobody seemed to mind.

Pink, red and orange colors danced on the horizon that evening before giving way to a full moon that lit up our journey back to camp. The white landscape seemed to glow and discomfort gave way to awe. My brother turned to me, my father and my stepbrother, Trevor, in the quiet moonlight.

“I love every second of this,” said Matt.

Our bodies hurt. Our brains knew better. My brother spoke for all of us.

***

The hunt continues.

I pull the empty shell out of my rifle, load another into the room, and quickly move the bull with cautious optimism. The long shot and downward trajectory scared the moose with no apparent direction of threat. He’s back in my reach …

Breath in breath out.

ANXIOUS.

In the beginning there is a deep sadness for me about the harvest of an elk. They are incredible animals. However, what provides comfort as an omnivore is the challenge of the hunt, the collective family bond it creates, and the stopping power of a powerful rifle. My bull country only took a handful of steps before falling into the snow. A clean and fast exit.

We respect his memory by not wasting his gifts. As the coronavirus pandemic subsides, my family will gather for big meals, to compensate for a canceled Thanksgiving to celebrate a moose steak get-together. We’ll retell stories of the hunt – with details getting more exaggerated each time – to keep the feeling of descending that mountain in the moonlight. Or the great fortune of a second shot that doesn’t miss.

Colorado is home to one of the healthiest moose populations in the country with an estimated 287,000 statewide in the winter of 2018, according to the latest state survey, with 52% of all herds above target. CPW actively works to engage a younger population in fishing and hunting through outreach programs that connect children and adults with experienced outdoorsmen. Educate yourself about gun safety and hunting laws. Create a memory and fill your freezer.

This Thanksgiving, the Coloradans should be grateful for the all-powerful moose.

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On the hunt in Colorado: A successful elk harvest amid downward national trend of youth hunters