We were walking one winter morning in the Bear Creek dog park in Colorado Springs, a fine, sprawling place to give to dogs and their human companions, when we came upon the body of a big, headless mule deer buck, shot, very illegally, by a trophy hunter.
The dogs were puzzled. Without its head, even dead, this animal made no sense there.
They were right.
America was built on the skin trade, from the South Carolina colonists who began with the export of deerskins to England, to Lewis and Clark, who went west from St. Louis with confidential instructions to explore routes for the trade in beaver pelts.
In the late 19th century, the demand for women’s wide-brimmed hats decorated with bird feathers led plume hunters to nearly wipe out the U.S. population of snowy egrets, as well as 95 percent of Florida’s other shore birds. In 1900, the Lacey Act took effect, the first federal law protecting game and prohibiting the interstate shipment of illegally taken wildlife (although the plume trade was only really crimped when prostitutes began wearing bird-feathered hats).
Market hunting waned in the 20th century as agriculture grew.
Then there was trophy hunting, historically an elite pastime. In 1884, young Theodore Roosevelt, the scion of an old and affluent New York family, got on a train in Manhattan and got off five days later in the Dakota Territory, looking for adventure and hoping to kill the last buffalo. He arrived “decked out in all the cowboy splendor that New York City haberdashers could conceive.”
Carpetbaggers come in many makes and models, and few these days have monogrammed luggage. Trophy hunting, at least in Colorado, is no longer an elite pastime, and poaching is no longer the rough justice of the have-nots.
Trophy-hunting poachers ought to be an anomaly. As the dogs say, it makes no sense.
So we were surprised and saddened last week to read about two Florida men who pleaded guilty to a poaching operation based in Limon, about 100 miles southeast of Denver. The pair, both from Bunnell, a tiny town north of Daytona Beach, were living in Colorado while working energy industry jobs when they illegally took at least three mule deer and six pronghorn antelope, decapitating some and leaving the torsos where the animals fell.
Then they shipped the heads back to Florida to be mounted.
Given the expense and risk, this does not seem like a lucrative sideline for two young men from the Sunshine State.
Did they display the poached antelope heads for their own gratification? Did they look back, just once, at the headless torsos when they packed the heads out – at the waste of such fantastic animals?
If they did, how could they enjoy their trophies, knowing it was all a lie?
“These men are not hunters by any definition,” said Frank McGee, Colorado Parks and Wildlife area manager for the Pikes Peak region. The same could be said for whomever killed and left two trophy bull elk to rot in the Uncompahgre National Forest in November.
“Gathering and eating from nature are ancient sacred acts,” writes David Petersen, founder of the Colorado chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “To kill and waste is at once sinful, slothful and staggeringly stupid.”