Elk nearly wiped out in early 1900s

Donna GrayPost Independent Staff
Photo courtesy of Frontier Historical Society / Glenwood Springs

Around 1880, two “market” hunters bagged 18 elk in the mountains northwest of Denver. They boasted about the kill, which took only 10 minutes. In one season, about that same time, hunters brought 14 wagon-loads of elk, deer and antelope into Denver for sale, for which they got between 7 and 10 cents a pound.In the early days of settlement, Colorado’s abundant elk herds, as well as deer, antelope and buffalo, sustained the pioneers and gave great sport to hunters. According to the Colorado Division of Wildlife, which has managed the state’s big game animals for more than a century, the elk population in North America stood at about 10 million animals before European settlers came and systematic wholesale hunting began.Colorado became famous for its trophy hunting, and European gentlemen traveled here to try their luck. Sir George Gore, for whom Gore Pass near Kremmling is named, came from Ireland to hunt in western Colorado. He shot elk and deer from the bed of a wagon. He only took prime hides and large antlers, and left the meat to rot.By the early 1900s America’s elk were all but extinct, and people began to take notice. A handful of refuges for elk and deer were set aside, notably in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Yellowstone National Park. In 1910, the U.S. Forest Service estimated there were only between 500 and 1,000 elk in Colorado, most of them living between the Gunnison and White rivers. If it had not been for the protection offered by those places, the elk herd of North America could well have gone the way of the passenger pigeon.But the powers that be in Washington at that time, notably President Teddy Roosevelt, who experienced the frontier firsthand, saw the toll civilization was taking on the West and its wildlife.

In his book, “Big Game Hunting in the Rockies and in the Great Plains,” published in 1899, Roosevelt said, “The wilderness has been conquered and all the game killed off.” Roosevelt saw the need to preserve what was left of America’s wild land and animals. He was as good as his word. During his presidency, from 1901-09, he added more land to the national park and forest systems than any other previous president. In Colorado alone he set aside 18 national forests and established Mesa Verde and Rocky Mountain national parks.The state of Colorado also stepped up to create an agency that eventually became the Division of Wildlife. It also passed game laws that forbade the taking of big game without using or preserving the meat.It also imported 310 elk from the Jackson Hole elk refuge that brought Colorado elk back from the brink. By 1976 Colorado could boast one of the largest elk herds in North America.Today, the White River herd, which ranges between Rio Blanco and Garfield counties, is the largest migratory elk herd in North America, said DOW spokesman Randy Hampton.”Heavy winter mortality and unlimited hunting decreased deer populations in the 1980s,” Hampton said. “Recent winters have been mild and when coupled with the DOW’s move to limited deer licenses we’ve seen resurgence in deer herds. At the same time, the DOW has been working to decrease elk numbers in the northwest part of the state.”Hunters continue to bag trophy elk in western Colorado, but now with the assurance that their numbers will be protected.

Residents of Garfield County learned of the planned visit of President Theodore Roosevelt in mid-March 1905. It was confirmed that the president’s staff would set up headquarters in Glenwood Springs while the president hunted bear and bobcats in the region. Roosevelt required his camp to be stocked with bacon, camp biscuits, coffee and bear meat “when we get it.” By April 13, hunting guides John Goff and Jake Borah transport 100 horses and 60 dogs to the site of Roosevelt’s first hunting camp 20 miles south of New Castle. Ranchers and trappers are recruited to search for bear tracks. At 7:45 a.m. on April 15, a pilot train precluded the arrival of the presidential train. Five minutes later, a Colorado Midland Railway train towing the presidential cars “Rocket” and “Viceroy” brings the president to New Castle. After addressing the large crowd, Roosevelt, dressed in hunting attire, mounts a horse and rides to camp south of Silt. Courier Elmer Chapman brings the news to the Hotel Colorado that the president had killed his first bear of the hunt on April 17. One dog was killed and several others injured during the hunt. Reporters were not allowed within 30 miles of the president’s camp. Two Divide Creek hunters received public criticism for shooting a bear which had been tracked by the president’s party. The Rev. Horace Mann conducted church services at Divide Creek’s Little Blue School on April 23. Roosevelt attended the services, after which he rose and addressed an audience of approximately 1,400 people. He was dressed in hunting attire while his audience came in their Sunday best. Deep snows in the region prevent the president from hunting over the divide to Redstone. By April 27, the party had killed at least five bears – two by the president – as well as several bobcats. Skip, a hunting dog owned by guide John Goff, takes a liking to Roosevelt. The president takes the dog to the White House after the hunt, where the little terrier lived until his death in 1907. The final week of April 1905, the president becomes ill, and his hunting is limited. By May 2, he and his party had killed 10 bear and three bobcats. The hunt ends on May 5, and Roosevelt rides back to the Hotel Colorado headquarters. That evening, he addressed a crowd from the hotel’s south balcony. On May 7, he attended services at the First Presbyterian Church in Glenwood Springs, visited the taxidermy shop of Frank Hayes to check on the processing of the skins of the animals killed during the hunt, and, later that evening, hosted a stag dinner for his guides at the Hotel Colorado. At dawn on May 8 the president and his party left Glenwood Springs by train, heading east.Compiled by the Frontier Historical Society in Glenwood Springs

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