Troubling surge of poaching cases in Colorado has wildlife officers trying to keep up

Poaching numbers by nature are elusive, but last fall brought a discernible spike in wildlife infractions across the state

Kevin Simpson
The Colorado Sun
Pronghorn near Eleven Mile Reservoir outside Hartsel on Jan. 25. In Colorado, killing a pronghorn with at least 14-inch antlers without a license and tag carries a $4,000 penalty.
Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun

On the opening morning of Colorado’s rifle pronghorn season in October, one of many hunters roaming the undulating, wide-open terrain in Eleven Mile State Park near Hartsel witnessed a series of events he found troubling — and possibly evidence of a crime.

First, he noticed two people stalking a pronghorn herd in the vicinity, though only one of them carried a rifle. That individual fired once, then changed angles and fired again — each time appearing to down an animal. As the hunter approached the pair, they appeared to suddenly veer away as if to avoid him. Later, he found a doe lying lifeless, fully intact but for a gunshot wound while, perhaps 100 yards away, he spotted the carcass of another doe partially stripped of its meat. 

Poaching, or illegally hunting game or fish, can take many different forms, such as killing animals out of season, or without a valid license, or through illegal or unethical means like shooting them at night or baiting them. It can include shooting them for fun or target practice or, as happened five years ago in Colorado, shooting mountain goats in the head at point-blank range. 

It can involve illegal kills for the purpose of harvesting animal parts that might have value in international markets. It can ignore or reject the basic hunting ethic of harvesting an animal’s meat, instead leaving it to rot. 

Ian Petkash, a district wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife and who patrols over 590 square miles of picturesque terrain within Park County out of his base in Lake George, discovered one common thread in many of his poaching cases: the willful destruction of big game animals, a felony under Colorado law. It generally occurs in one of two ways: shooting and intentionally leaving the entire animal to waste without harvesting its meat, or just claiming the trophy parts, such as the head and hide, and leaving the rest. 

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