As hunting declines in Colorado, the sport is still drawing some fresh blood
Three hunters fired several shots at an elk herd that escaped up a mountain and disappeared somewhere in the Ute Creek Valley near Wolcott. In another part of the valley, Stephen Couch and Eric Wardell saw an opportunity.Carrying their rifles, the men scaled a snow-covered slope. Forty-five minutes later, the men reached the top of the mountain, and the herd was walking toward them. Couch took a few deep breathes and aimed his friend’s Winchester rifle at an elk’s heart. He pulled the trigger and the elk froze. Seconds later, it dropped and Couch had his first kill.That was last November and the second time hunting that year for Couch, originally from Lubbock, Texas. The hunt sounds exciting, but Couch did it for the 400 pounds of meat. (Couch started hunting after friends brought him some elk meat that he said tasted “wonderful.”) “We still have a whole bunch left,” said Couch, an Avon resident who moved to the valley in 2002 and is a superintendent for Holy Cross Building and Design. The number of people hunting in Colorado has decreased 24 percent from 1991 to 2006, said Nicholas Throckmorton, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That’s higher than 10 percent nationwide decrease, he said. The number of new hunters may not be increasing, but the profile of the traditional hunter is changing, said Tyler Baskfield, spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. Young professionals whose parents never hunted and women are getting involved and “that’s a great thing,” he said.”No longer is it kind of a good ol’ boys club,” he said.
Most of the hunters that go to Challenge Outfitters are veterans – they know what they are doing, said Mark Powers, an employee at the Avon hunting gear store. Some beginner hunters need a little coaching. A woman and a man once seriously asked the old tourist cliche, “At what elevation do deer turn into elk?””I just kind of cracked up and said, ‘Well, they’re two different species,'” Powers said. Usually, beginners complain that they can’t hunt for a certain animal in a certain area, Powers said.”They kind of don’t understand that,” he said. Hunters buy licenses, or “tags,” for certain animals. A tag for an elk, plus fees, costs $49 (nonresidents pay $504). The state is divided into sections called “game management units,” where only certain animal species and genders can be killed by a designated number of people. People hunting in Eagle County could apply in early April to hunt for a bull elk in one of the county’s five game management units. Not everyone can hunt in one area for a bull elk, so the agency holds a lottery. If you’re not chosen in the drawing, you accumulate points that will eventually allow you to hunt in one of those game management units.”It definitely narrows it down so you don’t go out killing everything,” Couch said. Some units in the state have an unlimited number of tags available, so a hunter could buy a tag the day before his or her hunt.Debbie Darrough, a realtor for Prudential Colorado Properties and 19-year resident of Eagle, bought a hunting license three years ago, and she has been hunting ever since with her husband, Dave. Debbie Darrough’s stepfather hunted and that’s how Dave, a lead lift mechanic for Vail Resorts, got started. The men used to hunt together until Darrough’s stepfather died. “It used to be a guys thing but now he takes his wife,” Debbie Darrough said.She started because she worried about her husband going hunting by himself. And it’s nice to get away from cell phones and television for a week, she said. She also likes the tasty, tender and lean elk meat, which is better than the meat the grocery store offers, she said. She has yet to pull the trigger on an animal. In fact, the Darroughs haven’t taken home any animals since husband and wife began hunting together. “I don’t know if I’m a jinx, because he hasn’t been too successful in the last few years that I’ve been going,” she said. But she still enjoys following animals tracks in the snow. “And the cold doesn’t bother me,” Darrough said. “If you’re prepared you’ll do just fine.”
Trent Hubbard grew up in Olathe, Kan., and hunted dove and quail with friends. Like the other hunters, Hubbard did not hunt with his parents. Hubbard moved to the valley in 1992 and began hunting elk nine years later after a friend asked whether he would help carry out an elk the friend had shot near Castle Peak. “There were no trails and it just seemed to have all the elements of a very natural experience,” said Hubbard, a home builder who lives in Avon. “There was a certain amount of solitude, you saw a lot of wildlife.”Now that Hubbard hunts elk himself, he feels as though he is a farmer harvesting his crops. “We all need that,” Hubbard said. “We all need to sort of intertwine with the most fundamental level of nature.”For Hubbard, a typical hunt involves parking at a trailhead in either the Holy Cross or Eagle’s Nest wildernesses and up to a 16-mile hike each day to track elk. Once after shooting and killing an elk, Hubbard carried a 100-pound elk hindquarter for “five or six” miles. But usually Hubbard and his hunting partner carry the front part of the elk, return to his hunting partner’s property to get horses, which carry the heavier hindquarters back, he said.It’s not just being about being outdoors. Hunters have stronger concerns about land conservation and wildlife habitat and population management than most other people, he said. “That’s a group of environmental conservationists that I can identify with and support,” he said.
No general tax revenue goes to the Division of Wildlife, and it relies on money from hunting and fishing licenses for about 70 percent of its revenue, said spokesman Randy Hampton. The agency uses that money for all its day-to-day operations, from conserving private land to protecting animal habitat from development, to dealing with bears, he said.”Sportsmen have always carried the load for the protection of wildlife,” Hampton said.As the number of hunters decline, the agency is trying to recruit new ones by offering programs to encourage women and children to take up the sport, wildlife officials said. And the agency has raised the price of its hunting licenses for residents and nonresidents, Baskfield said.The decline in the number of hunters has not led to a decrease in revenue from hunting and fishing license sales. In 2001, the agency made $55,099,989 and in 2006, it made $74,500,000 from those sales, Baskfield said.Bob McClain is a local fundraiser for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, with which Division of Wildlife officials are working to recruit new hunters. It can be tough for new people to get into the sport. Hunters keep secret their “honey holes,” or good places to hunt, he said. “Most people have to pay their dues and get into it for a while,” McClain said. “Not everyone wants to be patient. It takes a while.”
People usually begin hunting when they are children, who are more likely to be dedicated to the sport throughout their lives. In the Rocky Mountain region, the number of children introduced to the sport decreased by 44 percent from 1990 to 2005, according to a 2006 U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey.Kids avoid the outdoors nowadays, and that’s one of the reasons hunting is not a growth sport, McClain said. “You can’t get a young kid on a vacation without taking a Game Boy,” McClain said.Conor McDonald, 14, is the exception. Conor took his hunter’s safety course in 2000, and he plans to go hunt for a cow and bull elk this year. He began working for tips at Copper Mountain Stables when he was 6, and he always has wanted to hunt with his older co-workers.Most of his classmates at Summit avoid the outdoors – they watch television and play video games, he said.”Their parents don’t really encourage them to get outside and do stuff,” Conor said.Conor’s parents don’t hunt, and his mother, Sherry McDonald, director of Vail’s Children’s Snowsports School, is skeptical. “She doesn’t like guns,” Conor said. “She’s a little nervous, but I think she should get over it.”
No one from Couch’s immediate family hunts – they’re “animal lovers,” he said. Family friends used to bring his mother Mary Couch hurt stray cats and dogs to patch up. “I’m the first and possibly the only,” Couch said. “My mother doesn’t want to hear any stories.”But like his amateur veterinarian mother, Couch loves animals and would never want one to suffer, he said. So he practiced target shooting with his friend’s rifle – he doesn’t own one yet – to make sure he would kill an elk with the first shot. “I did hear some horror stories about not getting a clean shot and having to track an animal for miles,” Couch said. And he bought the required blaze orange clothing, a vest and hat, from Sports Authority in Avon. The first time Couch went hunting a year ago during in September, he despised it. He didn’t get a single shot at an elk and therefore, no meat. “Three of those four days were spent trudging in the cold snow,” Couch said. “It definitely wears on you when you do that for hours and hours and you don’t have any luck.”But he got his first elk in November and that affirmed why he decided to hunt in the first place. “It wasn’t even the idea of the hunt, it was the freezer full of meat,” Couch said.
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