Pain in the brush
This year has not been the kindest to hunters.
Mike Swaro, Colorado Division of Wildlife district wildlife officer, knows this full well. Every hunting party he approached on the second-to-last day of the second season said this was the worst year they'd had.
"We came here a couple years ago, stuff was running all around," said California native Ed Abella, who came to Moffat County with his dad and others to hunt around Duffy Mountain. "Now, you could drive a hundred miles and not see anything.
"We hunted high. We hunted low. We hunted."
His party bagged one buck deer over the week. The trip cost them about $1,500 each, or $9,000 for the whole group of six.
Jack Jolley, a gray-haired regular from El Paso, Ark., shrugged and said he's been coming to Moffat County for a few decades at least, but had never seen the land so barren.
"It looks as if last year's winter really took a heavy toll on the animals around here," Jolley said. "Something has changed. Just walking around, you see animal bones and carcasses all over, and you always saw some of that, but not like this."
Swaro and his boss, Area Wildlife Manager Bill de Vergie, said it's not last year's winter causing problems, it's this year's sunshine.
The populations look healthy, but they're in the "dark timber," Swaro said, alluding to the thick jumbles of forest seen at higher altitudes around Northwest Colorado.
"It's a funny thing," de Vergie said. "One week, you think there isn't a deer or elk within a hundred miles, and the next every field has a herd of 40."
On this day, though, the only group that seemed to be where the wild things were was a group of young prospective hunters from the Front Range.
Levi Wolfe, 13, and Travis Meyers, 12, both shot, killed and gutted their first elk after little difficulty finding their prizes.
Each boy said he saw herds of 40 or more elk, although the boys were with separate hunting parties in different places on the mountain.
At camp afterward, the boys waited for the fruits of their hunt: a buck head for Wolfe, and steaks, roasts and hamburger for Meyers.
Meyers was ready to eat.
"The only reason I do this is to put meat in the freezer," he said.
Mike Swaro wakes up happy every day - at least every workday, though it is a few hours before dawn and he will be on the job until it's over, whether the sun still hangs in the sky or not. He's a game warden.
Officially, he's a district wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, but Swaro uses the colloquial.
Each day, he tramps across part of the 870 square miles of land and wilderness between Craig and Meeker in his charge; he is responsible for all wildlife and sportsmen and generally is asked to make people happy.
That makes him happy.
"It's never the same," Swaro said. "That's what appeals to me the most."
With fall comes hunting season, and Saturday was the end of the beginning for rifle hunts. Sportsmen should again be flocking to Northwest Colorado today, however, as another season begins Saturday.
That time of year
Hunting season changes the way Swaro does his job, he said. Law enforcement hours tick up, and time for other duties goes down. When he first joined the DOW, catching bad guys was a secondary motivation.
"Ever since I was born - always camping, hunting, fishing, being out in the woods - that just all really appealed to me, doing something along those lines," Swaro said. "The law enforcement side, as I've done this job more and more, it kind of appeals to me more and more. It's a lot of fun to get into cases, get out there and actually catch bad guys harming the resource."
The No. 1 priority always is to help people, Swaro said. Whether it's a landowner concerned with trespassers or a hunter looking for the best place to stake out, Swaro said he and his colleagues answers the call.
It just happens with so many people from all over spread across the land, issues come up, and DOW officers have to be there to keep things under control. There have to be limits and guidelines to ensure future generations can enjoy the same native wildlife, Swaro said.
The job isn't about being a ticket-writer, though, he added, but it sometimes is interesting to be a puzzle-solver, a detective.
"It's all about catching a guy," he said. "It's all about the chase, and then when you do find the guy, you have to have compassion. We don't punish a guy for making an honest mistake. There's definitely discretion, too. Some guys think we're out there to just write tickets. We look at the intent of the law."
A child grown up
Swaro believes in the law's purpose. He always has, because his father - once an Ohio game warden - raised him to respect the land. Although, he did have to have to move past some immaturity, too, he said.
"My dad, being a game warden, always taught me to play by the rules," Swaro said. "But you grow up with buddies sometimes that aren't the most ethical hunters. You've got to put yourself past that, especially once you get older."
But Swaro has never been too far from where he is now. He said he wanted to be veterinarian when he was in grade school, and his political hero is early 20th century President Teddy Roosevelt, who was a staunch conservationist and held the country's wilderness in high regard. Not every conviction of Swaro's is black and white, however.
Swaro said his biology and life science studies can contradict his Southern Baptist upbringing and the faith he still holds today.
"Sometimes, it's hard to bring it all together, with what they teach about evolution and everything," he said. "The way I see it, God created so much in the first seven days - who knows what a day was to Him. Sometimes you've got to keep it separate, I guess. There's just a lot out there we won't understand."
It might be Swaro's sense of wonder at the world that keeps his interest in nature science and his faith from competing.
"You go out in the fall - I like archery hunting, so I'm always out in the fall - you get the elk bugling and chasing the cows around and fighting each other," Swaro said. "It just makes you feel pretty small in the big picture of things."
Swaro said he couldn't allow that to go away.
"It's something that I want my kids to see and my grandkids to see," he said. "This part of the state is just a wildlife mecca in the world."