Advocacy | Conservation

Hunting for conservation

CORE Act hits its target as Colorado Rep. Neguse leads public lands legislation to success in Congress

Shooting a skunk on the eve of elk hunting season could hardly be considered a good omen. But the unsavory stench wafting in the air as I pulled into my hunting partner’s place on the southeastern edge of the Thompson Divide was undeniable. Before I’d even had a chance to lace up my boots, we’d been skunked.

Neither of us had set out to hunt polecats. But as the proprietor of the Kebler Corner cabin and RV resort tucked between Kebler Pass and the headwaters of the North Fork of the Gunnison River, Paul had hit his varmint threshold once the skunks started bedding down in guest quarters. With the next five days dedicated to pursuit of larger game, quick dispatch of a malodorous weasel was in order.

The elk would be another matter. And as we’d soon discover, haste was not an option in the steep tangle of gambel oak and dense deadfall preferred by the unit’s wily wapiti. Gaining elevation on snow-slicked game trails served as its own challenge, but stealth descent through the noisy thickets proved even more painstakingly difficult. The sign and sound of elk were everywhere, but rooting them out during legal hunting light simply wasn’t happening.

Hunting is funny that way: weeks of preparation followed by long hours of scrutiny bracketed by flurries of animated intensity. Merely locating the animals offers a sense of achievement, and drawing near enough to potentially fill your tag amplifies the energy, even if the empirical measure of success ultimately remains little more than a vision in your head. In between, you do your best to stay fit, focused and engaged in the moment, all the while trying not to forget to enjoy the view.

This is wild Colorado after all, the Rocky Mountain West in all its autumnal splendor. Hiking the flanks of Thompson Divide, we were surrounded by magnificent views of the appropriately named Ragged Wilderness and the taunting West Elk Mountain Range. The unspoiled ruggedness of the terrain clearly favored the ungulates, yet served as a vivid, tangible reminder as to why I’d spent the past year working to protect the area from inappropriate energy development through conservation legislation known as the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy — or CORE — Act.

The 200,000-acre expanse still offered us the same hunting challenges and opportunities as it did President Theodore Roosevelt when he first ventured in from the other side of Thompson Divide with a horse and rifle more than 100 years before. Its longterm value as a largely roadless haven for fish and wildlife far exceeds any potential windfall from oil and gas development that’s likely to ravage the habitat at its root, including the hub of pristine headwaters that radiate in all directions like the spokes of a wheel.

The Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act and the remainder of the CORE Act — including the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act, the Curecanti Boundary Establishment Act, and the Continental Divide Recreation, Wilderness and Camp Hale Legacy Act — all took a major step forward last week when the legislation introduced by Colorado Congressman Joe Neguse in January was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, marking the first time in more than a decade that any Colorado-based wilderness legislation has been approved by Congress.

Replete with its own challenges and opportunities, it’s no stretch to say that passing conservation legislation parallels the course of a big game hunt in many ways. The weeks of preparation extend to months, even years — or more than a decade in the case of Thompson Divide, where legislation seeking permanent mineral withdrawal was first introduced back in 2009. Likewise for those long stretches of scrutiny from every angle, punctuated by periods of animated intensity leading up to achievements like the one we saw on Capitol Hill last week. Unquestionably, that’s what winning in conservation looks like, and the momentum surging toward fulfilling our ultimate objective is palpable.

So, by all means, savor the experience and enjoy the prevailing view. Reach out and say thanks to champions like Rep. Neguse and his allies in Congress for leading the effort to protect these places and the unique opportunities they offer on our behalf.

But be sure to stay fit, focused and engaged in the moments to come. Because as close as success may feel, the reality is that passing the CORE Act in the U.S. Senate and protecting the best of wild Colorado is far from finished. Success is clearly in our sights, but ample work remains. And we sure would hate to get skunked again now.

Scott Willoughby is the Eagle, Colorado-based public lands coordinator for Trout Unlimited’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project. He can be reached at scott.willoughby@tu.org.