The Herd Mentality

Colorado's woods may be filled with more hunters than ever, but the elk aren't worried.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife recently announced that it will issue more elk tags this year than ever before. A spokesman for the agency says that 106,000 hunters -- roughly one for every two elk in Colorado -- will receive permission to hunt elk in the state in one of four separate seasons this fall. That's 30,000 more tags than the division has previously issued in a single year. You would think the elk would be quaking in their cloven hoofs. However, the odds are quite good that they'll be plenty safe.

The reason the DOW will be allowing such a huge army of hunters into the woods this year is that there simply are too many of the animals living here. Colorado's herd, already the largest in the world, has outgrown the state's natural ability to support it. Hunting is the only tool the division has to control that population, so DOW's big-animal number-crunchers (yes, there is such a job) attacked their calculators and announced that the quantity of hunters required to cull the herd needed to be raised by about 40 percent.

The most common explanation for why the size of the herd has exploded in recent years is climate. Dry and unseasonably warm weather over the past couple of autumns has kept the animals deeper in the backcountry, thus making a successful hunt more difficult. In a good year, about one-quarter of elk-tag holders will bag an animal. For the past two years, though, that number has stayed on the lesser side of 20 percent; last year it barely broke 15 percent. It only follows that fewer successful hunters means more successful -- i.e., living -- elk.

Yet there is another explanation worth considering: Ineptitude. There is considerable anecdotal evidence that a big reason the elk population is ballooning -- despite the increasing number of people stalking them -- is that hunters today are, well, just not very good. "All of my game-warden friends tell me they can't depend on hunters to kill the elk," says one Western Slope guide who asked to remain anonymous. "Anymore, they're lazy and unskilled."

Durango's David Petersen, a guide and author of the forthcoming book Heartsblood: Hunting, Spirituality and Wildness in America (Island Press), agrees. "I don't think hunters today are working at it," he says. "Most hunters now are dilettantes. It's something for them to do until the football season starts."

In short, for those who subscribe to the notion of hunting as a wily contest that pits man's smarts and cunning against the beast's natural wariness, there can be only one conclusion: The elk are winning in a rout.

Generally speaking, being inept at a recreational pastime is no big deal (unless you regularly rupture your ankle at the annual company softball game). But when that incompetence results in the failure of public policy -- the inability of biologists to properly and efficiently manage Colorado's elk herd -- it's time for the rest of us to start paying attention, too.

There have always been bad hunters. But what that has traditionally meant is dangerous hunters. While growing up in upstate New York -- first in the countertop-flat farm country of western New York, then in the Adirondack Mountain region, and finally in the Finger Lakes area -- I clearly remember the first day of deer-hunting season in the fall. Like many people, I carefully noted the day, but not because I was eager to stalk a deer. It was because deer season meant the arrival of thousands of weekend warriors who descended on the state from New Jersey and New York City like some undertrained but very enthusiastic and well-armed militia.

Dressed up in their still-creased fatigues, they toted designer guns and drove their Mercedes (Lexus SUVs weren't around then) north in long lines. They scared the living hell out of me, and newspaper accounts confirmed that I wasn't just being paranoid. Each year, it seemed, some big-city moron with as much understanding of hunting as he had of corn fertilizer would point his rifle at the first rustle in the bushes and pull the trigger. Too often, it wasn't a deer that fell out, but another hunter. For several weeks each fall, I rounded up my dogs and stayed inside.

But there is another kind of bad hunter, too, the kind of sportsman more akin to a hack golfer than a homicidal sportsman. These inept hunters certainly can be dangerous; however, more often, they are merely unsuccessful. I know people who enthusiastically enter the woods each year who without dumb luck would have no luck at all.

No studies have tried to measure the relative competence of modern hunters versus their predecessors, but people who think hard on the subject have their opinions. For starters, they say that the average once-a-year sportsman seems to have lost sight of the fact that hunting is a skill. It takes plenty of practice and commitment to maintain one's proficiency.

This is especially true with elk. More than most game animals, elk need to be actively hunted. That means learning how to read the woods and track an animal -- not merely sitting on a platform or in a blind until one wanders by. "You have to hunt harder, and most hunters don't have the inclination to do that anymore," says Brad Frano, a DOW employee and avid third-generation hunter.

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