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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Change in Hunting Ethics for Brainard Lake Recreation Area, Colorado

Bull moose at Brainard Lake, July 2014 (photo by Nancy Rynes)

Imagine that you decide to take your family into the mountains for camping, hiking, or maybe a picnic at one of your favorite recreation areas just an hour or so away. The recreation area is well-known for its stunning views of the mountains and abundant wildlife, including several large bull moose. The moose here are so used to people that they tolerate photographers and wildlife watchers to get relatively close without shying away. You live in a very large, congested metropolitan area so being able to get away to a beautiful place like this in the mountains is very relaxing and enjoyable. Besides, your kids like the moose so much that they've named them and clamor to go up and see Henry and Buster any chance they can.

But this weekend will turn out to be terribly different from your past visits this summer. It's early on Saturday morning and your kids scramble out of the camper early so they can go check out the moose. After breakfast, you take your family  for a short hike to the lake. Everyone knows the moose always eat the willows around the lake in the early morning. It doesn't take long to find the two huge bull moose...a crowd of over a dozen photographers, a few other families with kids, and several more  people are within 50 feet of Henry and Buster. You notice that there are other moose in the area too, for a total of five. Your kids are excited to see these big, beautiful animals so close - most people in the country only see moose like this in books and on TV.

Suddenly you notice movement from a group you thought were simply wildlife watchers. Instead of raising a camera to get a photo, though, one man raises a bow and shoots off an arrow directly into Henry's side! Now instead of a beautiful scene of moose grazing on willows, a wounded, terrified, 1200+ pound bull moose bellows in pain and starts running around in terror. His panic sets off the other four moose and now there are five huge, scared, wild animals running around an area with dozens of now-terrified photographers and families. The wounded moose, still running, barrels through two groups of photographers. As you grab your kids and scramble to safety, you hope that no one was hurt or killed by the wounded animal. 

Henry finally collapses on the ground and dies. Buster, distressed, stands by the side of his deceased buddy.

Emotions start to build between the photographers and hunter, and the photographers express their disgust and displeasure as to what just happened. It's at this moment that you notice the friends of the hunter start throwing rocks at Buster, the remaining moose, trying to drive him away so they can pose with the now-dead Henry for their victory photos. Buster doesn't much appreciate having rocks thrown at him so starts to get aggressive. The photographers intervene and get the hunter's friends to stop throwing rocks. In stunned silence, you move your now-crying kids back to the campsite, trying to figure out how to explain to them what just happened.

The details of the incident are real (as reported by eyewitnesses) and happened at Brainard Lake Recreation Area on September 6, 2014.

Not a pleasant scene, is it?

But this was technically a legal hunt. The hunter had a proper license and permit, the area was open to hunting, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) officials supervised the hunt. But while this was legal, it was far from responsible, ethical, sustainable, and safe.
  • Innocent and uninformed wildlife enthusiasts were placed in harm's way by the hunt itself, its timing on a weekend, and CPW's lack of communication to the area's visitors.
  • The moose at Brainard Lake are habituated to humans and tolerate more close contact than animals even at Teton or Yellowstone National Parks. "Hunting" of these moose is effectively like killing a dairy cow in a corral.
  • Visitors to Brainard Lake go there to enjoy the scenery and wildlife. They don't expect to be placed in the middle of hunting season while they are camping or picnicking at one of the most popular parks in the Denver Metro area.

Some other facts to keep in mind:
  • Parks and Wildlife officials did not tell the photographers or other onlookers viewing the moose that a hunt was in progress.
  • According to visitors at Brainard Lake that Saturday, nowhere at the park entrance, in the parking lot, campground, on the website, or at the lake did they see clear signage to indicate that a moose hunt was in progress. There was no opportunity for visitors to make a decision to come back another time.
  • According to US Forest Service statistics, Brainard Lake Recreation Area is the most heavily visited site in the Boulder Ranger District, and is one of the most popular in all of Arapahoe National Forest.
  • This is a beloved picnicking, camping, wildlife-viewing, and hiking area for the Boulder-Denver metro area but is only slightly over 3,100 acres in size. Because of the multitudes of visitors using only limited facilities in a relatively small area, congestion is extreme. In fact, the usage to this area is so heavy that the Forest Service is considering alternative transportation options to lessen congestion.
  • The campground contains 47 campsites which are typically filled each weekend, so upwards of 150 people were camping within 200 yards of the kill site.
  • Many tourists come to Brainard specifically to see the large bull moose, some from out of state. Still others count the moose as an important secondary reason for visiting this area. The moose are an eco-tourism attraction. Allowing the big bulls here to be killed is a public relations and revenue fiasco in the making.

What We Propose for Brainard Lake Recreation Area

I am a member of a larger group who want to do something positive to change this situation. We are not against hunting; rather, we are in favor of safe, responsible, and ethical hunting practices. Let me reiterate that we are not against hunting (seems some folks are not seeing this). We are, however, calling for safer hunting regulations in areas that are heavily-visited by the public. These regulations already exist in other areas of Colorado and we feel they should be extended to Brainard Lake.

We propose working together with the Colorado Governor's office, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the US Forest Service, and interested hunting and public groups to institute a plan that would allow for safe usage of Brainard Lake Recreation Area for visitors from Denver Metro area and beyond.
  • For the remaining moose tag this season, close the area to visitors on the day the hunt is in progress, and communicate to the public in advance (signage, website, etc) of what is about to happen.
  • For the future, institute a hunting exclusion zone, one mile in radius, outward from Brainard Lake (similar to what is already done at Mt Evans and in the moose habitat near Gould, CO) for the safety and enjoyment of the non-hunting public and the moose.  
  • Hunters would still be able to hunt on the Forest Service lands nearby, just not in the designated exclusion zone
  • This would allow the "eco-tourism" draw that the moose have to continue, as well as allow for continued hunting in that general area.  Recreation areas as beautiful as Brainard are gems because they are rare - the citizens of Colorado deserve a place they can go to enjoy this beauty and the wildlife without worrying about being injured by a hunt gone wrong.
  • Once an exclusion zone is established, if at some point in the future the moose become over-populated (as confirmed by a third party, uninvolved biological conservation organization or consultant), limited culling could be instated for one season, closing the park on the day or days the hunt takes place. In this instance, a weekday cull would impact the fewest visitors. This is similar to deer population control programs instituted at city and county parks in major metropolitan areas of the midwestern US.

What Will it Accomplish?

We have an opportunity to work together to create a plan beneficial for hikers, campers, picnickers, wildlife enthusiasts, the moose, hunters, the US Forest Service, and the State of Colorado.

Our biggest concern is for the safety and continued enjoyment of the non-hunting public who loves visiting Brainard Lake. We are also concerned for the moose themselves. If we continue to allow hunting at the lake, within just a few short years the big bull moose will be nonexistent there and the attraction they have for visitors AND hunters will be gone.

What will this plan accomplish?
  • Safety and enjoyment of the non-hunting public.
  • Continued moose hunting in the lesser-visited Forest Service lands in the area.
  • Continued enjoyment of one of the most beautiful and wildlife-rich recreation areas by the non-hunting public as an ecotourism draw.
  • Maintenance of a healthy population of moose close to a major metropolitan area, something extremely rare in the lower 48 states.
Precious few places exist in the US where the average person can easily and reliably enjoy being around these majestic creatures. Brainard Lake is one of the best, and it's a stone's throw from the Denver Metro area. We have an opportunity to create a positive outcomes - we can be proactive, taking a responsible, ethical, and sustainable approach to wildlife management and visitor enjoyment. Let's allow the moose to continue to draw in and delight tens of thousands of outdoors enthusiasts every year.

Nancy Rynes (primary author), Science Writer and Artist, Boulder, CO

An online petition for you to sign is available here:

People you can contact right now to voice your opinion:

Contact the Governor of Colorado:

Colorado Parks and Wildlife:

To contact news agencies:

The Denver Post newspaper:

State Reps:

State senator:

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Change is a Good Thing

If you haven't noticed, I let this blog slide for a bit. It was starting to evolve into a travel blog, which is not exactly where I wanted it to go. Don't get me wrong: I love travel and adventure, but I just don't do enough of it to maintain a travel blog.

Prairie Dogs at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

I've decided to steer the blog back in the direction I'd originally intended for it: discussions (in non-sciencey English) of the environment, climate, ecology, sustainability, and how human history and culture fits in. I might delve in to some other science and history topics too, as the Spirit moves me. Since western North America has been my home for over 20 years and I know it pretty well, the articles will focus on issues and topics from the Great Plains, west to the Pacific, and south into the deserts and jungles of  Central America. That's a big area, but it leaves me a lot of room to play with ideas and topics.

I'll still talk about places to visit from time to time, but will fit those travels in to the broader discussions I outlined above.

I'm excited to be making this course correction: while I love my new career as a full-time artist, part of me misses being a science writer and teacher/trainer. Now I have the chance to do that again, but this time on my own terms. I can write about my thoughts and opinions on controversial topics and not have to worry about what my employer might think :-)

Some of the topics I have planned so far include (in no particular  order):

  • What's an Ecosystem?
  • What's a Keystone Species?
  • Beavers and Stream Ecosystems
  • Prairie Dogs and Prairie Ecosystems
  • The Buffalo Commons
  • The Importance of Predators
  • The Issue of Wild (feral) Horses
  • The Issue of Feral Cats
  • Why Everything is Sacred
  • Ancient Trade Routes in Western North America
  • The Cacao Trade in Ancient North America
  • Why I don't Like GMOs
  • Why I Buy Organic
  • Why I Buy Locally-grown Foods
  • Intro to the Carbon Cycle
  • Intro to Climate Change
  • Climate Changes through History
  • Why the Current Climate Change is Worrisome
  • Scientists are Only Human: Biases vs. New Ideas
I'll start out with a few articles on ecosystems, since that is really the basis for everything that will follow.