An Experienced Hunter Has Some Special Advice for Westerners

By Vance Haug

 

On a frosty September morning just before dawn three bowhunters silently slipped through a dense pinyon-juniper jungle and crested the ridge that divided public Bureau of Land Management lands from the private meadowlands owned by a Colorado high country rancher. The hunters stopped just short of the boundary fence and sent a blood-curdling elk bugle call to the hay meadow below. Mere seconds passed before a mature bull elk screamed his outrage and scanned the horizon in vain for the upstart challenger. Moments later, several bulls filled the pre-dawn air with high-pitched melodies.

The hunters took out their binoculars and began to scan the private meadow that lay below. More than seventy elk milled about in the dim light of the new day. The herd began to slowly drift up from the valley floor onto the sage-covered slopes. The lead cow found a livestock trail that led up into the pinyon-juniper forest away from private lands and into the vast, desert-like expanses of the BLM range. After the cow took up the trail, the rest of the herd obediently followed.

The hunters observed the progression of the herd and quickly made note of the general direction in which the elk were moving. The hunters then dove back into the pinyon-juniper jungle and sprinted full tilt in the direction that they hoped would allow them to cut off the swarming herd and ambush the giant herd bull. Coming to a complete stop, they then knelt in silence, peering under and through pinyon and juniper branches, hearts pounding, lungs burning, drenched in sweat. Try as they might, they could not see the tawny elk hide moving through the trees below as they had anticipated.

Suddenly the wind began to swirl and the barnyard odor of elk urine rushed in upon them. The hunters briefly looked at each other and then cautiously crept forward until they came upon the source of the pungent aroma. The cow trail at their feet was so torn up that it looked as if a herd of buffalo had recently passed through. The hunters looked at each other with despair. The elk had beaten them to the ambush site and were probably already miles away. The herd was undoubtedly scampering up the precarious BLM slopes above, looking for a likely bedding site to rest for the day, regurgitating and re-chewing the grass that they had gorged themselves upon in the privately owned meadow the night before.

The hunters quickly took cover and the lead hunter let out a long, harsh, roaring bugle in an attempt to locate the herd. Several seconds later a high-pitched scream pierced the distance and the hunters again took off at a trot in the direction from which the call had come. They had only gone a couple of hundred yards when they stopped to rest and another call broke the morning’s quiet. This time the bugle was less than one hundred yards away.

Though it did not sound like the screaming reverberations which had come from the massive herd bull earlier in the day, the hunters were close. When they guessed that they were within 40 yards from where the last bugle had come, two hunters took up positions in thick cover as the lead hunter crept forward on hands and knees. He could see nothing through the brush and trees but could hear cow elk chirping and calling to each other as he crawled ahead. Several moments later he saw the yellow flash of a spike elk’s rump off to his right. He quietly sprayed himself and the air around him with elk urine and then lay completely motionless in a large clump of sagebrush. Within seconds he began to notice yellow rumps everywhere as elk continued to feed and move in the same general direction all about him. At that point he realized that he had unwittingly crawled into the midst of the tail end of the herd.

His companion hunters cow-called behind him, hoping to lure elk back to them and across the path of the lead hunter. They were not aware that at that very moment the lead hunter had so many elk around him he could not lift his head nor draw his bow. They simply listened for a few moments and then continued to move with the herd. The lead hunter lay there for five minutes in complete silence and watched the elk feed out of sight.

Once the elk were gone for several minutes, the lead hunter let out three quick, successive cow calls. Within minutes, this pre-determined signal brought his fellow hunters to his side and they heard crunching in the undergrowth and looked up to see a young five-point bull elk’s rack of antlers moving along above the buck brush that surrounded their little meeting place. The bull roared a furious bugle and they returned the favor. This went on for several minutes with neither party advancing. The proximity was so close that the bull’s bugling actually hurt the hunter’s ears.

The curious bull continued to pace back and forth, then slowly skirted the outer edge of the buck brush for several minutes. The hunters squatted motionless. The bull had them pinned down and no movement could be made without alerting him to the danger. Eventually, the bull lost interest and drifted off into the brush.

The hunters whispered excitedly and determined to follow the satellite bull and take him if the opportunity arose. Thirty yards down the trail the hunters squatted beneath an exceptionally large tree and whispered their plans for the next attempt at a stalk. Suddenly, a piercing bugle broke through the trees not 40 yards away. The lead hunter softly cow-called and within seconds a young six-point satellite bull began crashing through the brush. Instinctively, the lead hunter drew his bow as the bull stepped into the clear, not 15 yards away. The lead hunter released his arrow and watched it bury deeply behind the right front shoulder, penetrating both lungs of the bull. The young bull bolted and the lead hunter desperately cow called in an attempt to get the bull to stop flight. The call worked and the bull stopped approximately 50 yards away, stood for a few moments, laid down and died. Shortly thereafter, the lead hunter thanked God for the elk and the meat provided, field dressed the bull and the three began packing elk meat and quarters on their backs out to a nearby jeep trail.

This successful elk hunt took place a number of years ago on public lands in the mountains of Colorado. Despite this fact, a private land owner had a great deal to do with the successful outcome of this hunt. How could that be? Obviously the hunters in this story had a lot of experience and knowledge about how to hunt elk during the rut or breeding season. They also had a lot of luck on their side as well. However, these hunters had one bit of crucial information on their side that had absolutely nothing to do with luck. They had knowledge about a local cattle rancher and the prime elk meadow on his private land. Thanks to this private land "oasis" in the middle of semi-arid public land, the hunters also knew the location of a particular herd of elk before they even left the house.

As any consistently successful elk hunter will tell you, "elk are where you find them," and you will have a lot better luck finding them if you first know where to look for them. To some degree, this is true of most any huntable species, be it elk, deer, pheasants or quail. While I cannot tell you specific locations where you can find good hunting for each species in every state throughout the Rocky Mountain West, I can give you a basic hint that will start you out on the right track. Talk to your local landowners and get permission to hunt on or near private lands.

For example, in Southeastern Wyoming where I presently live there is very little public land. Because I am willing to help local landowners cut and stack hay, build fence, brand calves and so forth, I am often allowed to hunt on private land. The nice thing about this situation is that I actually enjoy helping these people whenever and however I can. Being allowed to hunt is just a side benefit which I enjoy but do not expect to be offered. However, thanks to these generous landowners, I have been able to harvest antelope, mule deer, whitetail deer and elk all within an hour’s drive of my front door.

Yet many local residents complain that they do not have time to help landowners or get to know them. They also bitterly complain that many landowners have their private property leased to outfitters for "rich non-residents" to hunt or that landowners charge hefty access fees to hunt their private properties. If you fall into this category of complainers, make some effort to get permission to hunt before you begin complaining. All of the landowners that I know who have leased their private property to outfitters still allow some locals and even visitors to hunt for free on different parts of the ranch or after the outfitters have left. You will be pleasantly surprised to find out that if you ask early (not the day before season opens) you will often be welcomed, so long as you respect the landowner’s private property.

Furthermore, if a landowner requests that you pay an access fee for good hunting, gladly do so. Some residents complain that a $200 access fee for a shot at a nice mule deer or a cow elk is not economically feasible. Many hunters say that they will not pay more than $10 or $20 for access, just as they did 15 or 20 years ago. However, inflation has affected the price of everything including the price of raising livestock. Why should a landowner be expected to charge 1975 access fees when he is paying 1996 prices for everything else in his daily affairs? Anyone who enjoys the sport of skiing can readily attest to the fact that the price of a family ski weekend has more than doubled in just the last 10 years. In comparison to the rapid cost increase of most recreational activities private land hunting is still for the most part a real bargain.

Additionally, anyone who has seriously hunted for any length of time knows that for most people hunting on public lands is not cheap either. If you live any distance at all from substantial public lands hunting, you most likely spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars on gas, groceries, lodging and vehicle maintenance every year. You also spend dozens of hours in a truck traveling back and forth on long weekends, trying to get to and from your hunting area.

Whether you are a non-resident or a local sportsman, I suggest that if you pay an access fee to hunt on private property with a reasonable amount of habitat and wildlife, you will probably save money and enjoy your hunt more than you have in recent years past. This is because you will not encounter a legion of orange-clad riflemen over every ridge like you do on so many public lands today. Besides providing a higher quality hunting experience, this is also a much safer hunting scenario for hunters who are introducing their youngsters to the sport.

If you start early and make an actual effort to locate private lands to pursue your favorite quarry but still cannot, look to public lands near private lands. For example when hunting elk, contact your local game and fish department and ask where the elk "hot spots" are located in your chosen area. Get a topographic map of the area and look for private ranches that have hay meadows and agricultural crops. Because the meadows with the best agricultural potential were often homesteaded first, you can be sure that elk (and other big game) will congregate in these agricultural fields to feed at night. Alfalfa hay is a particular favorite.

However, because the rugged or desolate terrain surrounding these meadows was difficult to utilize agriculturally, it often remained unsettled. Today, much of these lands are public lands and are excellent big game habitat. Even though they often feed on the private lands at night, elk will commonly move through and bed in public lands within a several mile radius of the private ground. Thus, elk (and deer and moose) hunting may be excellent near the private land or even a number of miles away from private land.

Of course elk and other species are most vulnerable when moving from private feeding grounds to public bedding grounds and vice versa. This is especially true the closer your hunting season is to winter. Elk, moose, deer and other game animals are heavily dependent upon private lands for winter range. Where I grew up in the mountains of Colorado it is not uncommon to find up to 200 head of elk grazing on a private meadow on a typical winter day. Even though these elk can be a nuisance to the landowner, destroying fences, trampling stack yards and consuming vast quantities of expensive hay (which was put up for livestock), many ranchers intentionally feed elk every year to help them make it through the rougher months. Without these ranchers and without these private winter grounds, thousands of elk would literally starve to death every winter. For example, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department estimates that approximately seventy-five percent of the State’s elk population spend all or a significant portion of the year grazing on private lands. In other words, without these private winter ranges, 75 percent of the State’s elk could face debilitating stress or even starvation.

Finally, even if you never get permission to hunt on private land and even if you are never successful at finding a good public lands area to hunt where you benefit from neighboring private land, as a hunter you should still thank your local landowner. Why? Because ranchers and farmers maintain the open space characteristics on their private property that are so essential to outdoor habitat for all species of wildlife. These private land owners who support wildlife are one of the major reasons that huntable wildlife have increased dramatically and flourish in most Rocky Mountain states today. Some critics allege that mountainous lands are hard to build upon and that ranchers that claim they are the only thing that stands in the way of the subdividing of wildlife habitat are exaggerating their importance. Take it from someone who in a few short years watched his Colorado ranching community turn into a valley of condominiums and housing projects, ranchers and farmers are critical to wildlife habitat preservation. I have personally witnessed the displacement of entire elk herds from winter feed grounds overnight by golf courses and ski areas.

The results of this type of development to hunters—and more importantly to the animals themselves—is devastating. Thanks to the massive influx of people from more metropolitan areas many open spaces, especially aesthetically-pleasing mountain lands offered for sale by private land owners are purchased and developed before the "for sale" sign is driven into the ground. I have seen this with my own eyes and if you think about it, you have too.

Without a doubt landowners who provide private winter habitat for wildlife are essential to both the private land and the public lands hunter. So next time you see your local landowner down at the coffee shop or out fixing fence, stop for just a second and tell him "thank you." For without him, open spaces and hunting as we know it will surely become a thing of the past.

Mr. Haug is a senior associate with Budd-Falen Law offices in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He has extensive experience dealing with Endangered Species Act compliance, protection of private property rights and local government involvement in federal agency decision making process under the National Environmental Policy Act.

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