Outdoor Articles

Public Elk, Private Land

by Pursue The Outdoors on July 17th, 2006 in Big Game Hunting

Do you hunt public land? Has this happened to you?

You’re hunting your favorite spot high up in a ravine. Normally this is a productive area but for a couple of days now it seems like the elk have just vanished. They were here last year, you tell yourself. What’s going on?

As you glass down toward a neighboring ranch, you see a cowboy riding the inside of the fence line. At the edge of a small clearing he stops. This is the middle of bow season, but you watch in horror as he unlimbers a lever action rifle from the scabbard and points downhill. He doesn’t seem to be aiming at anything particular when the gun roars!

You can’t tell for sure, but in the returning echo, it sounds like the rattle of hooves scattering through the ravine and fading away down into the ranch.


If you’ve ever hunted on the public side of a private fence, you know what I’m getting at. How many times have you heard somebody say they heard somebody else say they heard from their uncle that a rancher was rounding up elk? Or maybe you’ve seen what I described above and wondered if those were just cattle running through the trees, or a herd of elk.

Here in Colorado, the Division Of Wildlife is trying to address the HOT topic — and frequent complaint — of “animal herding”.

By herding, they mean land owners either preventing elk from leaving private property or actively pushing them from public to private property.

As someone who has hunted and guided on both public and private lands, this is an issue I’ve dealt with a lot — from BOTH sides of the fence.

In my upcoming book, “Do-It-Yourself Elk Hunting”, I’ll talk in detail about specific strategies you should have in place before this kind of thing ruins your hunt. But let’s just take a step back from the trees for a minute and look at the whole forest.

First of all, the Division Of Wildlife is in a no-win situation. They are already stretched to the limit during hunting seasons. Most of the complaints they get like this don’t have enough evidence to prosecute successfully.

Second, there is no law on the books that specifically addresses herding. Generally it falls under the prohibition of “harassing wildlife”. However, there is nothing illegal about a landowner patrolling his fence or property line. If he happens to pass by a herd of elk in the process, that simply does not constitute harassment. You’re going to have a tough time proving somebody was herding elk and not just shooting at a grouse.

Third, every public land hunter — me included — has gazed longingly over a fence, either seeing or imagining a thousand elk on the other side. And of course you just know they’re standing there immovable, waiting to be shot like fish in a barrel by hunters who paid $3,000 a head.

Now I’m not saying that can’t or doesn’t happen.

But let’s suppose you do stumble across an incident like I described above. It sticks in your craw and must be the reason you’re not seeing elk.

What are your options? I hope you’re smart enough not to take matters in your own hands. Tangling with a pistol-packing cowhand equipped with a horse, a coil of rope, and a head full of Louis L’Amour stories is a bad idea!

You could get mad, drive to town, call the DOW and fill out a report. If you witness a flagrant violation, by all means go ahead. It’s even better if you had the presence of mind to fish out your camera and take a picture or video.

But look at your hole card. How much time have you got? Are the elk really all inside that fence? If you’re not finding elk, you’ve got a lot of work to do and very little time to get it done. Choose your priorities and use of time carefully.

Let me tell you, discouragement is your worst enemy on an elk hunt! When things aren’t going your way, there’s no more welcome friend than a good excuse. But excuses don’t put meat in the freezer — EVER.

Elk hunting is hard enough without fighting battles you probably won’t win. Hunting season is too short to spend time doing anything besides making boot tracks through the woods where the elk are. You don’t have time to fix all the reasons why elk aren’t where you want them to be.

My advice? Let it go. I promise you, the elk are not all on private land — at least not here in Colorado. Put your backup plan in action and get on with your hunt.

You do have a backup plan, right?

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