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Hunt for white October

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Bob McGrew of Durango exits his newly erected hunting tent Friday on Missionary Ridge. McGrew, who has come to this area to hunt elk since 1981, said the recent snow should be to his advantage.

By Chase Olivarius-Mcallister Herald staff writer

The first hunting season is again upon Durango, and starting today, humans from throughout the state and nation will descend on our wilderness – rifles in hand, licenses in back pocket – to track, shoot and perhaps eat unluckier members of our elk population.

The first season, for elk only, ends Wednesday.

But Bambi, beware.

Hunters can gun for both elk and deer in subsequent seasons.

The second begins Oct. 19 and finishes Oct. 27.

The third rifle season goes from Nov. 2-10, the fourth from Nov. 13-17.

Joe Lewandowski, public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Durango-based southwest region, said while hunters may go after big game, they pose no danger to Durango’s other indigenous species, hikers.

He said that despite the popular perception that hunters frequently shoot hikers by accident, he’s never heard of it happening in Colorado.

“For the last nine years I’ve worked here, we’ve only had an average accident of one per year, and usually that’s where people have shot themselves, or other hunters,” he said.

Hunting season will begin with a layer of white in the high country from Thursday’s storm. The new snow could help hunters track animals, and the cold weather generally brings elk and deer to lower, more-accessible territory.

However many animal hides hunters rack up in the coming weeks, their pursuits promise great bounty for Durango.

A 2008 Colorado Division of Wildlife report (the division has since morphed into Parks and Wildlife) found that, excluding purchases on hunting and fishing licenses, hunters and anglers spent about $1 billion on trip expenses and sporting equipment in Colorado in 2007.

Indeed, in 2007, hunting accounted for about 477 jobs in La Plata County alone, and hunters and fishermen dropped about $43 million in the county.

Because of their generosity, hunters have become the hunted: Stores throughout the county have hoisted placards telling visitors “We Ship Meat.”

In advertisements, Smitty’s Discount Liquor of Cortez promotes its deals on Bud Light and peppermint schnapps between pictures of rifles. Four States Tire and Services of Durango boasts that it is “your hunting vehicle headquarters.” Coldwell Banker Heritage House Realtors runs glossy, full-page ads spotlighting various mountain estates on top of a photograph of an elk, as though the three-bed, three-bath, $1.2 million dream house came with prey, too.

Economically, the hunting frenzy is acute even in the bourgeois quarters of downtown Durango.

This week Brian Hessling, manager of Gardenswartz Sporting Goods, said people had been in the shop all week buying hunting-related accessories, “things like game bags, stove fuel, perhaps some blaze-orange clothing that they’re required to wear, hats and vests, things like that – it’s a fairly diverse list of merchandise.”

Hessling said hunting goods’ prices ranged widely, too.

He said popular items such as emergency blankets, compasses and containers of propane gas might set the budding hunter back $50, whereas “we just had one hunter shopping for optics, and the transaction today totaled $3,000 on scopes,” he said, referring to a device that many hunters attach to their rifles to better see their prey.

He said $3,000 for scopes was on the high end.

“It was a German-made spotting scope, Swarovski. I’m sure the customer was looking at it like a lifetime purchase. An object like that will be passed down for generations if it’s cared for,” he said.

While Swarovski isn’t necessary for the amateur hunter, Hessling said it would likely cost about a grand to outfit someone new to hunting.

“Starting completely from scratch – and the purchase we’re speaking of involves a firearm – you’re probably looking at between $800 to $1,000,” he said.

Hessling said that over the years, recreational hunting’s image may have been tarnished by its association with unsavory and extreme political associations, from the National Rifle Association to animal-rights activists.

“If hunting is to be viewed as something that is an acceptable practice for the average American, it can very well be harmed by extreme views on both the right and the left. The extremist views of some of the animal-rights organizations pose a threat to hunting, and when you look at non-negotiable components of the far-right gun lobby, that probably can pose a threat to hunting, because more people feel that it’s a fringe thing, something the average American doesn’t participate in and can’t relate to,” he said.

“I think your average hunter feels like they’re stuck in the middle. They are the so-called great silent majority who want to be left alone to live their lives and not get caught up in politics,” he said.

Hessling said hunting was growing because of new groups becoming interested in it.

He said though women still account for just 5 percent of hunters, because hunting tends to be a skill passed down by a mentor, they were slowly gaining market share.

“As time passes, you are probably going to be seeing women who have that hunting experience sharing it with other women. You already see that with respect to other more macho activities – big-wall climbing or committed backcountry skiing. Women are out there doing the big stuff just like the guys are, and those vocations are better for it,” he said.

“Hunting would be best served if more women or kids were involved, because as we become an increasingly urbanized culture, those things are becoming harder and harder to access,” he said.

He said the other great area of hunters’ demographic growth was organic-food enthusiasts.

“I think people are intentionally involving themselves in hunting because they want to know where their meat comes from – not some Styrofoam plastic-wrapped thing you get from the supermarket. They want to have a role in it,” he said.

“Hopefully, it’s one of the things that will sustain hunting in America – the desire for people to understand where your food comes from.”

Lewandowski said that the meat speaks for itself.

“Wild game meat can’t get much more organic. It’s high in protein, low in fat, good for you, healthy meat. It just tastes great,” he said.

cmcallister@durangoherald.com

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