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Elk history

Donna Gray
Photo courtesy of Frontier Historical SocietyTeddy Roosevelt poses for a photograph near New Castle during his April 1905 hunting trip.
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Around 1880, two “market” hunters bagged 18 elk in the mountains North West 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 first hand, 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 to 1909, 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.

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.

By Donna Gray of the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.


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