Hunter's bloopers are nothing to joke about

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"How many years does it take a mule deer to become an elk?"

This question represents a brief sampling of what deputies at Moffat County Sheriff's Department deal with each year during hunting season.

The stories of "dumb" hunter follies piles up over the years but officers exhaled a collective sigh of relief as the sun set Wednesday night on this year's third general rifle-hunting season. The upcoming fourth season is thought to attract a larger collection of local and knowledgeable hunters.

"Hunters don't come with maps, they're ill-prepared and full of fire," said Deputy Tim Jantz. "They don't realize that the area they're in is totally different from the one they're used to at home."

Moffat County sees an average of two hunting-related deaths a year, officers said. While a portion of those accidents is the result of an accident with a firearm, many others are victims of heart attack.

Other times, accidents and sometimes death is caused by hunters' eagerness to come home with a kill, especially as the season wears on.

"It's at the end of season when I get calls from hunters asking where they should go to find the deer and elk," Jantz said.

"People come from lower elevations and they're not used to exercise and that's what gets them into trouble," added Deputy K.C. Hume. "They don't realize that walking two miles at home on flat ground is different than walking around in the mountains here."

While a main role of the Department of Wildlife is to enforce hunting regulations on the land in the surrounding areas, many times sheriff deputies are called out in the event of an emergency.

Deputies often lead search and rescue efforts and may issue tickets for trespassing and other violations. According to a new "Sampson Law," hunters are issued a $10,000 fine if caught taking a trophy animal illegally. Those funds aid the deputies' training program.

In the last three years, the sheriff's department has benefited from two of those tickets.

The department received an additional almost $2,000 in fines this year and almost $800 a year in 2001 and 2002 for other hunting infractions.

Taking an animal other than the one listed on a hunting license happens more frequently than deputies care to admit. Unfortunately some hunters don't realize their mistake until its too late.

Jantz recalled citing a hunter who mistakenly killed a doe mule deer thinking he shot an elk.

"He was from Denver," Jantz said incredulously. "There's no excuse for that. He insisted it was a calf elk. I could tell by the end of our conversation as I was getting out the ticket book he was trying hard not to cry."

That mistake cost the misinformed hunter $2,200, partly because he took aim from the road. The dead animal was also taken from him.

"For a moment he was so excited to show me that he got an elk," Jantz said.

This year, about eight moose have been killed that were mistaken for elk, officers said.

Other reports state that ranchers' bulls and horses have been shot by hunters.

Tracking down lost hunters who call in with cell phones is another tricky feat. Many call without a notion where they may be. Or some call in saying they can see a town but want to be picked up because they're tired of walking.

"Sometimes we just tell them we're not going to pick them up if we know that they can find their way back," Hoberg said.

In the last couple weeks, deputies have taken an increased number of road kill requests as hunter desperation set in. In certain areas, officers noted hunter camps dotting the landscape, with at least one party occupying each hilltop.

Early reports from the DOW stated 14,000 hunters found their way to Northwest Colorado.

"It's a zoo out there," Jantz said. On Wednesday he added, "We're breathing a sigh of relief at dark tonight."

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