By Burdette “Bud” Weare
For the Courant
A hundred years ago, Colorado’s elk herd appeared to be following the fate of the bison. Locally, the Elks outnumbered the elk. And thereby hangs a tale.
Most of the elk had been slaughtered in the late 19th century by market hunters answering the demand for fresh meat in Denver and Front Range mining towns. Antlers and hides also found a ready market. Indeed, during World War I, Gates Rubber Co. applied the heavy-duty hides to automobile tires in an effort to preserve the valuable rubber. But most controversial was the “vanity hunting” by Elks Lodge members, who preyed on elk merely for the animals’ ivory teeth, from which they fashioned badges and watch fobs.
So it was in 1916 that a repentant Pueblo Elks Lodge purchased from Wyoming a carload of 50 elk, half of which they shared with Idaho Springs. Whatever the motives of the Clear Creek importers, the transplanted elk had a mind of their own and soon migrated to the more luxuriant meadows of Upper Bear Creek, where they multiplied with a vengeance. According to Ralph Matzner, retired manager of the Mount Evans State Wildlife Area, this resurgence of the elk population spelled the doom of specialized agriculture on Upper Bear Creek. By 1930, it became virtually impossible to raise summer oats, not to mention other cash crops such as potatoes, peas and lettuce. In the wintertime, ranchers mobilized to defend their hay stacks.
The story was the same across much of Colorado. In 1929, the state re-established elk hunting seasons, which had been closed since 1903. And in a remarkable turnabout, Colorado became an exporter of elk, shipping a “small herd” to Texas in 1931. That same year, the state Department of Game and Fish (renamed the Division of Wildlife in 1972) began a policy of making cash payments to farmers and ranchers for “big-game damage.” By 1949 these annual outlays amounted to $125,000. In the meantime, the department turned to “thinning” destructive herds, and here the story refocuses dramatically the famous (or infamous) Bill Forgett.
William Wilford Jean Forgett (1906-1982), described as the department’s “one-eyed French sharpshooter,” first came to notice in a thinning operation at Rocky Mountain National Park during the winter of 1944-45, when he killed 301 elk and 113 deer. In 1950, the department installed Forgett as the first manager of the Mount Evans State Wildlife Area, a 3,600-acre site purchased largely from the Evans and Truesdell families. Perhaps Forgett should be remembered as the key figure in the creation of the Mount Evans Wildlife Area, the man on the ground, constructing the compound, building the roads and overseeing the preserve in its formative years.
But that’s not how he is remembered. Instead, he became a local legend who was barred from amateur shooting competitions, and who gained national recognition in outdoor magazines as a latter-day Buffalo Bill — holding the modern record for shooting more deer and elk than anyone else in America. The irony in his dual role as conservation officer and sharpshooter is that he was both guardian and hired gun, preserving the herd while thinning it, not necessarily a contradiction under the principles of wildlife management. But the mixed duties could make for an unpleasant stewardship.
Matzner recalls that Forgett used a big dump truck to haul carcasses into Denver for distribution to the Denver Mission and the Salvation Army. Gene Bassett, a rookie wildlife officer fresh out of college, remembered being assigned to assist Forgett: “It was pretty bloody. We had to go in … and shoot a truckload … and gut ‘em, and it was colder than hell. The next day we’d haul ‘em to where they were processed and donated to charity. And then do it all over again.”
These were things “they didn’t teach college guys,” Bassett added.
Bill Forgett is the little story within the larger story of the area’s environmental history.
Demography and economics constitute the underlying plot, with the elk rather than Forgett serving as protagonist. Forgett represented a fleeting era when the greater Evergreen area shifted almost overnight from ranches to subdivisions. The old game warden proved less adaptable than the elk. He fled to unsettled South Park, where he closed out his career and is buried among the aspens.
The elk, on the other hand, welcomed the subdivisions. Janet George, biologist with the Division of Wildlife and author of the 1998 “Elk Management Plan” for the Mount Evans herd, points out that clearing the forests, even for housing developments, often provides a net gain in elk forage. If we build it, they will come. For the moment, our adaptable elk are enjoying the best of both worlds. They seem equally at home grazing in meadows or picnicking on our patios.
Janet George, who is working on an update of the 1998 report, believes that the size of the Mount Evans herd has stabilized over the past decade, remaining at about 2,500 head. Not everyone would agree, but her more telling point is that the herd has “redistributed” itself — moving east, downslope, increasingly concentrated on private landscapes and public open space where there is less snow, more food and no hunting. Above all, there is more human contact, which leads George to predict that if there is a crisis looming, it will have less to do with the carrying capacity of the land than with the carrying capacity of the culture.
People have been more than patient with their patio elk, but the elk should know that humans are a capricious species, unreliable in our alliances. Moreover, “habituated” elk make for an uneasy, unpredictable relationship. A bull elk herding a harem up your driveway is a majestic creature right up to the moment he impales you and your Subaru. In the past, elk existed at our pleasure. If the tables are turned, how would we respond? The Division of Wildlife will be polling our opinions. We should have creative answers, keeping in mind that Bill Forgett is gone but not forgotten.
Bud Weare, an Evergreen native and a noted historian, is an occasional contributor to Evergreen Newspapers. He and his wife, Juanita, live in Marshdale, with many elk.