OUT: Grouse hunting in remote Cold Springs includes using ATVs
MAYBELL — At first glance, it seems there’s a lot of nothing up here. And that’s good.
One town to speak of, a handful of ranches — many of which stretch to the horizon and then some — and barely enough people to fill the auditorium at the Maybell school.
This is the farthest you can get from home and still be in Colorado. Up in the windswept reaches where Colorado, Utah and Wyoming angle together near the foot of Cold Spring Mountain, a slump-shouldered extension of the Uintah Mountains.
Most of the year this corner of Moffat County is awfully quiet, but the population of northwest Colorado jumps substantially every fall when the various hunting seasons run their respective courses.
One thing this part of the state has is plenty of wildlife, whether your favorite wears furs or feathers and runs, waddles or flies.
There also is a bunch of history, complete with fascinating stories of horse thieves and cattle wars, shootings and bankrobbers. Even the seemingly ubiquitous Butch Cassidy, long before Robert Redford made him much more attractive than he really was, made frequent appearances around here.
Today, the area is a magnet for hunters. Among them are the grouse hunters, a determined lot willing to travel this far in pursuit of a bird that calls for skillful cooking to be edible.
Biologists have been monitoring sage grouse populations for decades and the bag limit dips and rises in step with concern for grouse populations levels.
Once, eons ago it seems now, the limit was three per day. It wobbled down to two and then dropped to one and a two-day season, a protectionist move that may have meant something for grouse but nearly killed off sage-grouse hunters.
Now, with its range-wide population healthy but teetering, the bag limit is back to two, with a seven-day season ending Friday.
Sage-grouse hunting once was a great outing, often featuring large camps full of hunters and their dogs. This past weekend, I saw one big camp with seven tents, maybe a dozen people and half that many dogs.
Well-conditioned, long-legged dogs that can point if needed and retrieve better than a congressman chasing votes.
Labrador retrievers of every color, German shorthaired retrievers, Golden retrievers, you get the picture. This isn’t a sport for basset hounds.
But most of the camps were small, one or two tents or trailers, a solitary dog bowl under an aspen tree.
Plenty of ATVs this year, and in the expanses of Cold Spring Mountain, which stretches some 10 miles from west to east with a spiderweb of trails, an ATV makes sense.
Roads are primitive at best and nearly non-existent at times, mere tracks set across the landscape by the
rancher who works his cattle up here on a mix of private, state and federal land. It’s hard to tell which is which, except for some well-marked Division of Wildlife property, and if you’re trespassing, there’s no one to chase you off.
Occasionally you’ll see other hunters, tiny dots on a vast landscape of sage-brush hills and deep rocky ravines.
You rarely make contact, even if you want to. Waving to a passing vehicle is OK but most hunters take themselves awfully seriously and chatting isn’t done lightly.
Mostly you just wave and nod and go about your business. There’s a lot of ground to cover, so many hunters scout the land by driving in first gear, their dogs doing all the leg (and nose) work.
Sage grouse avoid trees, because that’s where avian predators tend to perch, so it’s out you head into the wide flats, which on the slump-shouldered Cold Spring Mountain include sage-brush covered broad ridges and bowls, surprisingly many of the latter with a spring or two.
Water means life in this spare land, and most of the water holes have been developed, meaning a bulldozer gashes out a pond the spring slowly fills in.
In dry years many of the water holes are, too, but this year there is water everywhere. While meant for cattle, the ponds attract all sorts of wildlife, and on a fall morning you can find elk hunters and grouse hunters eyeing
the same pond.
If you’re lucky, you’ll be startled by the rush of strong wings, a surprisingly fast take-off for what seems a lumbering bird. More than one hunter misjudges how well sage grouse fly, until the bird is far away and the shotgun is empty. The dog comes back and stares at you, with no doubt in his eyes as to who failed whom.
The whimpering comes from the hunter with two legs.
Good thing it’s a short season.