More time to hunt big game | AspenTimes.com

More time to hunt big game

Scott N. Miller
Vail Daily

The way Ray Long sees it, hunting is much more than a hobby. It's a way of life.

Long, a longtime Eagle County local who's also a longtime member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, remembers hunting with family members for the first time when he was about 4 years old. Since then, he hasn't missed a season.

"It's just who I am — it's a family tradition," Long said.

Long, who usually hunts with a bow, plans to head into the forest during the state's third rifle season, Nov. 1 to 9. He should have lots of company.

Thousands of people every year head into the forests of Colorado searching for deer, elk or other big game. For many, it's a chance to bond with friends and family. For others, a successful hunt helps feed the family.

Long said information he has from the Elk Foundation is that hunting is starting to become more popular with health-conscious people. The meat is lean and it's all natural.

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That growing trend as well as the fact that more women and girls are coming into the sport has helped reverse the longtime aging of the hunting populace. For the first time in decades, the average age of hunters in Colorado dropped a bit last year.

Out-of-state hunters pay handsomely for the privilege of trying to bring home an animal. While an in-state license for elk is about $50, non-resident licenses can be as much as $600.

And many people are truly dedicated to the sport. Matt Solomon, owner of Alpine Arms in Eagle, also will head for the hills for the third season. After suffering a bad fall earlier this year, Solomon had hip surgery in the summer and is facing back surgery this fall.

If he's successful this year, he'll have to rely on a friend to help him pack out the meat.

"I know I'll never hear the end of it," he said.

That dedication also turns into spending, and lots of it. A statewide study done by Colorado Parks and Wildlife determined that hunters in 2008 spent about $38.8 million in Eagle County alone. That direct spending turned into a "total impact" of $67.4 million. That's a relatively small number in the big picture of tourist spending in the county. In more rural areas, such as Jackson County, the vast area surrounding the small town of Walden, the state study found that 12 percent of all jobs there depend on hunting and fishing.

Solomon said his shop gets and stays busy throughout hunting season. While most people already have firearms, Alpine Arms does a brisk business in scopes and binoculars as well as cold-weather gear for those who misjudge just how chilly autumn nights can be at 9,000 feet or higher.

This year, with a relatively wet summer and a warm autumn, the herds are staying at higher elevations. That puts many of those herds into areas that are harder to get to.

That's especially true around Vail, where several roads have been closed since a 2011 travel management plan was approved by the U.S. Forest Service.

Dave Neely, district ranger for the Eagle and Holy Cross ranger districts, said the road closures have remained controversial with some hunters. Closing Mill Creek Road, a long way into the forest on and around the Vail ski area, has forced hunters to hike up the mountain in search of elk. These days, the Forest Service has a parking area at the top of Rockledge Road for those willing to take that long walk.

But, Neely said, those who hike can be rewarded. Areas where the roads have been closed off for several years are "like wildlife preserves," Neely said.

"The animals do better when it's not noisy," he said.

While hunters come in the fall, Neely said the forest's trails are generally well used year-round. That can lead to some conflicts between hunters and hikers or mountain bikers. But, Neely said, those conflicts are rare. Hunters generally prefer less-used trails, since that's where more animals could be found.

Still, Neely recommended that anyone headed into the backcountry would be wise to wear plenty of blaze orange and to put some on the dog, too.

"We just want everyone to be respectful," Neely said. "Nothing's worse than getting close to a herd and then having a dozen people drive up with their music blaring."

‘I now pronounce you… sighted in’

This year’s best hunting anecdote comes from the Holiday Inn in West Vail. Director of sales and marketing Mike Spaid said the hotel recently hosted a wedding party who came to the high country with more than nuptials on the agenda.

The day before the wedding, much of the party fired up their ATVs, put on their camo and blaze orange, and headed into the hills for a bit of hunting.

What’s not to like?