Halfway through the fall rifle seasons, Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials are again warning elk hunters not to shoot moose during their hunting trips.
Law enforcement officers are investigating 11 cases of moose being illegally shot this fall, including a trophy bull moose discovered shot and abandoned in the White River National Forest near Red Sandstone Road on Sunday, Oct. 30 and another illegally killed near Silverthorne on Oct. 22.
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Last year, officers investigated 14 cases of moose being mistakenly – or illegally shot. Eleven hunters were cited for poaching or negligence.
“If there’s any question – any question at all – don’t shoot,” said Ron Velarde Northwest Regional Manager. “If you’re not absolutely, positively certain of your target, do not pull that trigger.
While each case presents unique circumstances, wildlife managers say inadvertent moose kills invariably involve some combination of low-light conditions, an incomplete or long-distance view of the animal and poor judgment by the hunter, leading to misidentification of the target.
It is the obligation of every hunter to positively identify the target,” said Bob Thompson, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Acting Chief of Law Enforcement. “It’s the first and most important thing we teach in hunter safety class. There is no excuse for shooting the wrong animal.”
Moose and elk are both large members of the deer family and the two species are easy to distinguish in clear light, said Andy Holland, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s big game manager. Elk tend to be lighter, have a white rump and can be found in groups, often in hilly and open terrain. Moose tend to be uniformly dark brown, travel singly or in pairs, and can often be found in riparian areas and willow thickets.
However, moose and elk can often be found in similar terrain – in aspen stands, in oak brush, in wet or dry meadows, and even above timberline. Heavy cover can also obscure distinguishing field marks, like the moose’s bulbous nose or the broad, palmated antlers of bulls.
Hunting for elk is often best at dawn and dusk, low-light conditions that can lead to the misidentification of elk and moose even by experienced hunters. The moose’s habit of standing still in bottoms and wet terrain can also make it a tempting target for an inexperienced or over-anxious hunter.
“Elk don’t stand around and watch you,” Holland said. “If it sees you or smells you and doesn’t run away, it’s probably not an elk. It’s the hunters’ responsibility to make sure they know what they’re looking at.”
Funded and supported by sportsmen, Colorado’s moose introduction program ranks as one of the most successful species conservation efforts in state’s history. Colorado is home to a growing population of roughly 1,700 moose, which are now common in North Park, Middle Park, Steamboat Springs, Rio Grande National Forest, and Grand Mesa National Forest. Moose were recently introduced into the White River National Forest east of Meeker. In addition, moose are inveterate wanderers and are increasingly found on the Front Range.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife issued just 175 moose hunting licenses this year. The lifetime bag limit for antlered moose in Colorado is one. In contrast, wildlife managers issued elk licenses to more than 214,000 hunters in 2010.
As Colorado’s moose population has grown, Colorado Parks and Wildlife managers have devoted significant resources to education and outreach programs intended to inform hunters about the differences between elk and moose. This year, some 23,000 flyers were mailed to hunters who drew elk tags in areas where moose are known to exist. Elk and moose identification lessons are a standard part of hunter safety courses. Teams of volunteers even visited hunters in their camps throughout the Northwest Region to deliver the message face-to-face.
But sometimes, even a personal conversation is not enough. In 2010, Velarde visited a camp of elk hunters near Meeker and warned the group to be on the lookout for moose. A day later, a wildlife officer returned to the camp after one of the hunters turned himself in for shooting a moose.
“We harvest about 50,000 elk every year,” Velarde said. “The vast majority of hunters behave responsibly and identify their target before taking their shot. They shouldn’t feel like they’re getting a black eye because a very small number of people are too quick on the trigger.”
Hunters that mistakenly kill the wrong animal are urged to field dress the carcass and immediately contact Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Wildlife officers will seize the erroneously killed animal and donate the meat. Hunters who mistakenly kill a moose and don’t turn themselves in, like the hunter that shot and abandoned the trophy bull near Vail, face serious charges and heavy fines if caught by wildlife officers. The illegal take of a bull moose can carry fines up to $10,000 and/or surcharges, but abandonment of a carcass may be prosecuted as a felony with fines up to $20,000 and/or imprisonment and the possible lifetime loss of hunting privileges in Colorado and 35 other states that participate in the national Wildlife Violator Compact.
In the Silverthorne case, several people hiking the Gore Range and Rock Creek/Pebble Creek Trail reported that they encountered a hunter who told them he had shot a bull moose by mistake, but the individual has yet to report the incident to wildlife officers. In this case, officers have a description of the hunter and articles that he left behind, and also believe that he is a resident of Colorado.
“If you make a mistake, own up to it,” Velarde said. “It’s the right thing to do. Report it to us and make sure the meat doesn’t go to waste. Better yet – when in doubt, don’t pull the trigger.”
Hunters who may see suspicious activity in the field are asked to contact the local District Wildlife Manager, enforcement agency or Operation Game Thief toll-free at 877-COLO-OGT (877-265-6648). Callers may remain totally anonymous.