In 2005, I moved to Colorado’s Front Range to work for the Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, an independent weekly in Fort Collins.
My first article for the Bullhorn — and one of my favorite pieces that I penned for the newspaper — covered illegal poaching of elk in Estes Park, outside Rocky Mountain National Park, and the proliferation of elk in the region due to a lack of natural controls (read: wolves and predators).
Years later, poaching remains a problem, wolf reintroduction and hunting in the national park remains controversial, and wildlife management remains a general enigma in the Estes Valley.
As their population surges, elk in Estes Park become easy targets for poachers.
By Joshua Zaffos
Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, January 27, 2005
If ever an elk was a martyr, his name was Samson. A hulking 1,000-pound, eight-by-nine-point bull, Samson probably could have run for mayor of Estes Park in the mid ’90s he was so popular. Tourists and locals visited him at his hangout at the YMCA of the Rockies, south of town near Mary’s Lake, and just about everyone found joy in snapping his photo and feeding him treats.
“Samson would stop right in the road for you to give him an apple,” recalls Bryan Michener, a long-time resident and a member of the Estes Valley Improvement Association, a nonprofit valley citizens’ group. One time, a couple even tried to saddle their 2-year old on Samson’s shoulders for a Christmas photo.
“Like he was in Santa’s herd,” Michener says, as he sips coffee with some friends at the Notchtop Bakery and Café in Estes Park. Still, Samson was a (relatively) wild animal, and Michener says the handouts and human contact amounted to “a death warrant.”
On the night of November 11, 1995, Randal Francis, a resident of Lakewood, illegally killed Samson on the lawn of the YMCA with a crossbow. During Francis’ trial for the wildlife poaching crime, one YMCA staff worker told the court that the bull elk “was so trusting of people that [Francis] could have walked up to Samson and slit his throat. There was no sport in the killing.”
The incident brought nationwide attention to Estes Park and raised awareness of wildlife poaching to a new level. A Larimer County judge slapped Francis with a 90-day jail sentence, $8,300 in fines and court costs, and 360 hours of public service. Francis also temporarily lost his driving and hunting privileges and was prohibited from owning anything more dangerous than a kitchen knife. The punishment signaled a harsher stance on poaching in Colorado – in the name of Samson, who became the symbol for the state’s Operation Game Thief program, which rewards citizens who turn in poachers. In Estes Park, residents raised $15,000 to commission a larger-than-life bronze statue of the beloved elk.
But there’s a greater cause that Samson died for, one that is still unfulfilled. Elk in the Estes Valley are easy marks for poachers because of their habituation to humans, a direct result of them hanging around town instead of the meadows of Rocky Mountain National Park. The bulging herd of 3,000 elk has thrashed that landscape, spilled into Estes Park, taken up residence on lawns and golf courses and lost any instinctual fear of people. Now, federal and state wildlife managers are figuring out if and how they’re going to thin the herd – a move that could restore the park’s environment, reduce the elks’ presence in town and possibly slow down poachers.
Says Michener, “They need to start taking the bull by the horns.”
The Population Bombs
Elk lived in the region of Rocky Mountain National Park for thousands of years before people – white people – showed up, but they didn’t last too long after American pioneers settled in.
“In 1875, the elk came down from the mountains by the thousands,” wrote Abner Sprague, an early homesteader in Estes Park, “and were met by hunters with repeating rifles and four-horse teams. In 1876, few elk came down and, by 1877, very few were seen east of the Continental Divide.”
By the turn of the 20th Century, the settlers had exterminated the elk – along with the wolves and grizzly bears – of the valley and replaced them with cattle.
The cows trampled the meadows and overgrazed the native grasses and riverside willows. Locals like Milton Estes and Enos Mills resented the destruction and went to work protecting the area. The efforts succeeded with the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915 “for the preservation of the natural conditions and scenic beauties thereof.” Livestock grazing was phased out within the park over the next 45 years and relegated to a secondary industry in the valley. Tourism, based around the national park and the wildlife, became the valley’s economic engine.
Wildlife managers reintroduced 49 elk, transplants from Yellowstone National Park, in 1913 as part of Rocky Mountain’s environmental preservation. Within fifteen years, the restored herd had grown to 300, and Estes Park residents were so enamored with the elk that they fought off a proposed hunting season.
By 1942, the elk population swelled to 1,525 animals. Without any predators, the herd overwhelmed the land and spread inside and outside park boundaries. Native grasses disappeared, as they had from livestock grazing, and park managers determined the winter range was way beyond its carrying capacity. In 1944, the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the national park system, authorized a population control program where rangers shot elk to reduce the herd size.
For the next two decades, rangers maintained the herd at about 600 elk and saw improvements in the ecological health of the landscape. But the sanctioned killing of wildlife in a national park was unpopular within the Park Service and among the public. A 1962 agreement between the national park and the Colorado Division of Wildlife opened an elk-hunting season outside the park and ended the population control program.
In search of a steady policy for elk management, the park initiated “natural regulation” in 1968. In theory, environmental factors – available forage, predators, the survival of the fittest – were supposed to limit and stabilize the number of elk in the region. But without wolves or park rangers actively culling the herd, the population exploded. According to a later Division of Wildlife report, the herd had multiplied to 3,000 head by 1983, about where it remains today.
That ungulate mob has decimated the winter range inside the park, where it’s nearly impossible to find a healthy aspen tree or any new shrubs. The decline in vegetation has hurt bighorn sheep, ptarmigan and beavers, too. “Natural regulation” has turned the national park into a wasteland.
As the herd grew, thousands of hungry elk pushed down the valley just as Estes Park was undergoing its own population explosion. New subdivisions, which restrict hunting in the area, now run right up to the national park boundary. Two-thirds of the elk herd winter in suburbia. In his 1993 book, Rocky Times in Rocky Mountain National Park, Karl Hess, Jr. called the park “an ecological relic in the midst of expanding urban sprawl.”
“When I was a kid there weren’t any elk in town,” says Skip Peck, who manages the Estes Park golf courses.
Now, as many as 300 elk devour the greens, mark the fairways with their hooves, spar with the flag-pins and defecate wherever they want. Peck says he’s even had to close a hole in the spring because protective cow elk have charged golfers who get too close to their calves.
Bryan Michener says that people thought the development in the valley would help cull the herd by eliminating the natural forage. Instead, he says, the residential lawns and landscaping have served as a free buffet for elk. The animals now crowd onto front yards, town parks and the grounds of the YMCA. They even began drinking out of a waste-grain container behind the Estes Park Brewery (a practice now prohibited through fencing), which inspired the best-selling Staggering Elk Lager.
Into this human environment, came Samson – and Gimpy, Socrates, Elvis, Horny and a slew of other half-ton town mascots with impressive racks and no fear of people. And that near-domestication of trophy elk turned them into appealing targets for poachers who started descending on the Estes Valley with increasing audacity.
It’s easy to see why Samson was so popular: He was easy to see. Just as the high visibility of Samson and other elk of Estes Park have attracted overzealous amateur photographers and parents looking for that distinct Christmas card picture of Baby, poachers have also sought out the human-habituated elk.
The myth of poachers is that they hunt illegally because licenses are prohibitively expensive to salt-of-the-earth backwoodsmen who survive on the meat. In reality, most poachers are out for a trophy – the rack and head of a behemoth bull – to sell on the black market. Poachers sneak around town after-hours, slaughter a bull elk with an impressive rack – sometimes killing the animal from the driver’s seat of a pickup – then hack off its head and leave the body on the roadside. A trophy mount like Samson – with eight- or nine-point antlers – can bring in thousands of dollars.
The last national headline-grabbing case around Estes happened in September 2003, when Terry Ray Graves, a Tennessee man, illegally killed a bull elk just inside national park boundaries. Graves spotlighted the 800-pound bull near a busy intersection, just across the street from a gas station and a few restaurants, and then riddled him with crossbow bolts, a frequent weapon of choice with poachers since they make no noise.
Rick Spowart, the district wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, found a headless corpse in a puddle of blood the next morning, along with a skinning knife, camouflage gloves and a bolt. Park rangers found blood at the campsite Graves had just left, and citizens and surveillance cameras identified that his truck was in the area. When investigators went back to Graves’ home in Tennessee, they turned up an elk head – among other animal heads – and later matched the DNA to the carcass. Charges are expected from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the next month.
The CSI: Estes Park storyline sounds sexy but most poachers aren’t as sloppy as Graves. There’s only been one other high-profile poaching conviction inside Rocky Mountain in the last four years. But Steve Spanyer, law enforcement specialist for the national park, says “It would surprise me if we went a year without a poaching incident in the park.”
“All too often [poachers] get away,” agrees Spowart, as he walks behind the town police station where a poacher, still at large, killed an elk this past September. He says that four to six “gross violations” by trophy-elk poachers occur each year in the Estes Valley. Even when authorities have caught them, judges and district attorneys used to go easy on them since wildlife violations don’t seem to measure up to other crimes. Randal Francis, who killed Samson, could have received up to $100,000 in fines but the D.A. cut him “an awfully good plea bargain,” says Spowart.
The situation has improved in the aftermath of Samson’s death. The public around Estes has become actively aware about wildlife poaching: Spowart and Spanyer both stress that most convictions only happen with the help of conscientious citizens, who pass along tips through the state’s Operation Game Thief toll-free hotline (1-877-COLO-OGT). The case also turned up political pressure to make poaching a costly crime. Now, anyone who illegally kills a trophy elk, an animal with six or more points on one of its antlers, in Colorado is subject to the Samson surcharge, a mandatory, $10,000 misdemeanor fine, in addition to other state and federal charges.
“I think the Samson surcharge has worked,” says Spowart. “Before the Samson surcharge, we had more of a trophy elk poaching problem than we do now.”
This is good news. Bryan Michener says Estes Valley locals had gotten somewhat used to finding headless elk carcasses on their land in the 1980s and early ’90s. That almost never happens anymore, he says.
Still, the Estes Valley and Rocky Mountain National Park appear destined to remain a tempting spot for renegade poachers. “You’re going to have poaching no matter what the size of the herd is,” says Kyle Patterson, National Park Service spokeswoman. “The animals being used to humans is more of a problem.”
Trophy Elk or Trophy Homes?
Regardless of golfers playing through calving grounds and poachers shooting off crossbows next to restaurants, the neighborhood wildlife remains a huge tourist attraction for Estes Park. Samson is an afterlife celebrity. The town’s main street is Elkhorn Avenue. The annual Elk Fest during the rut includes a bugling contest and features a band called the Elktones.
But people recognize a growing problem. A 2001 report from the U.S. Geological Survey says the number of elk is projected to increase by nearly 50 percent before being “nutritionally limited” by lack of forage “suggesting that human-elk conflicts will likely increase in the absence of active management intervention.” So, the Park Service is leading an effort, in coordination with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the Town of Estes Park and other federal, county and valley partners, to take control of the issue.
Starting in 1994, federal and university researchers went to work figuring out what this intervention will look like. More than ten years later, the Park Service is closing out the planning process. Last year, the agency held public meetings to solicit comments on population control measures for the elk. Now, officials are putting the finishing touches on an environmental impact statement for a 20-year management plan for the elk.
“Overwhelmingly, the public agrees something needs to be done,” says Carlie Ronca, a natural resource management specialist at the national park. “Something” could include extensive fencing, hazing and herding of elk from sensitive areas, more hunting outside the park, culling inside the park led by agency-guided sharpshooters, wolf reintroduction and elk birth control. Among the six management alternatives the national park is considering, the herd could be reduced to 1,200 head or left at its current numbers through a combination of these elements.
“Probably, something needs to be done besides hunting,” says Spowart of the Division of Wildlife. His agency issues more than 2,000 hunting licenses each year for the area and about 400 to 500 elk are usually harvested. Considering there are already eleven different elk-hunting seasons outside the park in the area, it might be hard to further step up the hunt. Spowart says culling of the herd by authorized marksmen inside the park could effectively reduce the herd, but he thinks any call to kill wildlife in a national park will be a tough sell to the general public and Congress, which might have to authorize that decision.
Equally controversial is the return of wolves. Mark Peterson of the Fort Collins office of the National Parks Conservation Association says he “looks forward to the day when wolves re-colonize Rocky Mountain National Park.” As predators, wolves will cull the elk herd and make the national park “a more naturally functioning ecosystem,” Peterson says.
“Wolves aren’t just going to stay in the park,” argues Skip Peck, from inside his office at the eighteen-hole golf course. Like other locals, Peck believes wolves will follow elk outside the park and into town, leading to more human encounters with wildlife.
For that reason among others, Colorado has remained somewhat ambiguous on its stance on the topic. But even if the state fails to adopt a Wolf Management Plan, the national park as a federal entity could push forward with its own wolf recovery plan. Or animals from packs in Wyoming could migrate on their own into Colorado.
Then, there’s birth control for the elk.
“Years ago, when [the herd] wasn’t so big,” says Peck, “I said they should round up the bulls and put rubber bands around their balls.”
Potential plans by the national park would be a little more technical. Wildlife managers would trap cow elk – not especially difficult with the tamed animals – and then shoot them with leuprolide, a contraceptive drug that sterilizes them for one year. Most people philosophically support the idea, but it is invasive to the wildlife, expensive to implement and still untested.
What combination of these tactics will take control of the elk population and straighten out the ecosystem?
“We haven’t determined the determining factors yet,” admits Ronca, although the Park Service plans to do so by the summer, when its recommendations will be issued.
“If they did something in ten years,” says Peck, “I’d be amazed.”
His cynicism underscores the arduous process the Park Service and its partners are carrying out. The humongous and habituated herd isn’t going away, and difficult political decisions will have to be made to deal with it.
“None of these alternatives,” says Spowart, “are going to be very palatable.”
That’s why Paul Firnhaber, one of Bryan Michener’s friends at the Notchtop Bakery, considers all of the management alternatives “stop-gap measures.”
“I don’t think we are going to solve the elk problem in this valley,” says Firnhaber. “We know what we have to do, but that’s not going to happen.”
He’s referring to population control – not for the elk, but for the people of Estes Park, who continue to invade and restyle the elks’ territory.
For Firnhaber and Michener and others at the Notchtop, the trouble isn’t trophy elk but trophy homes. They think a sanctuary, similar to the 25,000-acre National Elk Refuge outside of Grand Teton National Park and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is the solution for the displaced herd. That would necessitate some major land-use revision and a pause to development in the Estes Valley.
Meanwhile, the elk joust with clotheslines, knock over birdhouses and chew away the aspen trees on front lawns. They mow down the golf courses and even the island of rock and grass where the bronze statue of Samson looks over the town, waiting for his martyrdom to be fulfilled.