Private Land, Public Elk |

Private Land, Public Elk

Photo courtesy of Shelly Kelly.

Do you hunt public land? Has this ever happened to you?

You’re hunting your favorite spot high up in a ravine. Normally this is a productive area but for a couple of days now it seems like the elk have just vanished. They were here last year, you tell yourself. What’s going on?

As you glass down toward a neighboring ranch, you see a cowboy riding the inside of the fence line. At the edge of a small clearing he stops. This is the middle of bow season, but you watch in horror as he unlimbers a lever action rifle from the scabbard and points downhill. He doesn’t seem to be aiming at anything in particular when the gun roars!

You can’t tell for sure, but in the returning echo, it sounds like there’s a rattle of hooves scattering through the ravine and fading away down into the ranch.

If you’ve ever hunted along the public side of a private fence, you know what I’m getting at. How many times have you heard somebody say they saw a rancher rounding up elk? Or maybe you’ve seen something like I described above and wondered if those were just cattle running through the trees – or your herd of elk.

Here in Colorado, the Division of Wildlife has tried to address the frequently heard complaint of “animal herding.” By herding they mean land owners either preventing elk from leaving private property or actively pushing them from public to private property.

Unfortunately the Division of Wildlife is in a no-win situation. They are already stretched to the limit during hunting seasons. Most of the complaints they get like this don’t have enough evidence to prosecute successfully.

Second, there is nothing on the law books that specifically addresses herding. Generally it falls under the prohibition of “harassing wildlife.” However, there is no law against a landowner patrolling his fence or property line. If he happens to pass by a herd of elk in the process, that simply does not constitute harassment. You’re going to have a tough time proving somebody was herding elk and not just shooting at a grouse or jackrabbit.

Third, every public land hunter – me included – has gazed longingly over a fence, either seeing or imagining a thousand elk on the other side. And of course you tell yourself that’s the reason why you’re not seeing any elk on public land.

But let’s just say you do stumble across an incident like I described above. What are your options? I hope you’re smart enough not to take matters in your own hands. Tangling with a pistol-packing cowhand equipped with a horse and a coil of rope out in the middle of nowhere is a bad idea!

You could get mad, drive to town, call the DOW and fill out a report. If you witness a flagrant violation, by all means go ahead. It’s even better if you had the presence of mind to fish out your camera and take a picture or video.

But look at your hole card. How much time have you got? Are the elk really all inside that fence? If you’re not finding elk, you’ve got a lot of work to do and very little time to do it in. Choose your priorities carefully.

Let me tell you, discouragement is your worst enemy on an elk hunt! When things aren’t going your way, there’s no more welcome friend than a good excuse. But excuses don’t put meat in the freezer – EVER.

Elk hunting is hard enough without fighting battles you probably won’t win. Hunting season is too short to spend time doing anything besides making boot tracks through the woods where the elk are. You don’t have time trying to fix the reasons why elk aren’t where you want them to be.

My advice? Let it go. I promise you, the elk are not all on private land. Put your backup plan in action and get on with your hunt. If you saw something worth reporting, you can do that on your way home. (I’m not talking here about poaching – always report poaching crimes as soon as possible by calling 1-877-COLO-OGT).

There are two other things you should consider too when hunting near private property boundaries.

First, whether that boundary is fenced and posted or not, you are responsible for knowing where the line is. Ignorance is not an excuse and you can (and probably will) be prosecuted for trespassing and hunting without permission.

Second, even if you legally shoot an animal on the public side of the boundary but it manages to run onto private land before dying, you absolutely can NOT retrieve it without permission first.

Think about the logistics of that for a minute. Every second counts when an animal is down. The sooner you can get it field dressed and cooling, the better the meat will be.

But instead you could find yourself tracking down a hard-to-find rancher to obtain permission. Chances are even if you find him he’s going to have questions and may not be too happy with you. The harsh reality is he is perfectly entitled to refuse you that access.

Am I saying you shouldn’t hunt near private property?

Not necessarily. Unless prohibited for some other reason, all National Forest, Wilderness, State Trust and BLM land is legally yours to hunt – right up to the private property line. You just have to understand the risks you are taking.

At a minimum I would recommend getting to know the adjacent landowner before you pull the trigger, not after. Maybe the better plan is to keep a safe buffer between you and that fence. There are millions of public, hunt-able acres in Colorado – with elk on them, even during the busiest of hunting seasons.

In my elk hunting book I teach how to build a flexible hunt plan with backups for any number of surprises you can’t control. If you’re on a five-day hunt, my recommendation when the elk are hard to find is to move on to your backup plan and not go looking over fences for excuses.

Jim Deeming is a third generation Colorado native who has hunted and guided all over the state for 25 years. He brings his love of the woods home to his readers, and also teaches Colorado Hunter Education. Jim and his wife Linda live in Berthoud and they have five children. You can find out more at

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