Passing the buck

Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation encourages women, youth

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Elkhorn Outfitters was host this season to a determined group of women hunters who visited Colorado in hopes not only of a successful harvest, but camaraderie, mentoring and preservation.

Three women from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation arrived from Montana, South Dakota and Wisconsin. They brought with them three young ladies to share in the adventure.

After last year's successful all-women hunt, Elkhorn Outfitters owner Dick Dodds and Betsy Wandkte, a development officer with the foundation, discussed bringing not only ladies, but young ladies to back to Craig to hunt elk in 2003.

When Wandkte told Dodds she wanted to come back this year, Dodds said he told her, "Let's take it a little further. Why don't you bring some girls back and carry on the tradition." Dodds said despite the success of Elkhorn Outfitters, which has celebrity clients and has hosted televised hunts, he is a sucker for the sentimental aspects and the camaraderie he's found teaching young people to hunt.

"If we don't pass this on to someone who wants to do it, the future will be pretty limited." Dodds said.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's mission is to "ensure the future of elk, other wildlife and their habitat."

"We want to get them involved in the out-of-doors," Wandkte said. "People have to take responsibility or we're not going to have it."

Maggie Engler, the South Dakota regional director for the foundation, said she and her colleagues also hoped to pass on the privilege of hunting elk in the wild.

"You can't pass it on unless you have kids to pass it on to," Speirs said.

"It's the ripple effect," Wandkte said.

With the help of numerous sponsors, Maggie Speirs, 12, Danielle Sholstak, 17, and Emilee Williamson, 17, received an all-expenses-paid trip to hunt elk with professional guides north of Craig.

Cabela'\s donated camouflage outdoor gear, including pants, shirts, jackets and boots. Ruger donated three rifles and Nikon chipped in range finders for the young hunters.

By Wednesday, four of the six, including all three young women, had filled their tags. Sholstak shot her cow elk first thing Monday morning. The trio even helped field-dress and pack out the animals they harvested.

"These girls are not squeamish," Wandkte said.

The women were concerned with all aspects of the hunt, with the kill being only a bonus, according to Tony Grajeda, an Elkhorn Outfitters guide.

"They wanted to learn how the elk hunting sequence goes," Grajeda said. He taught them how to use the wind and the terrain to avoid being discovered by the elk. "They learned the steps necessary to hunt if they were out there on their own."

Dodds said the young women's innocent, unjaded attitude was refreshing for him.

"If it's nothing but killing, why do it?" Dodds asked. "If you can't keep that integrity and meaning in hunting."

In the lodge following a long day in the field, the girls recounted their hunting adventures with wide-eyed enthusiasm, noting the circumstances, times of day and the distances to the elk they shot.

Williamson, a student from California, took her elk from more than 100 yards using a Ruger 7mm-08. According to other hunters on the expedition, the elk Williamson shot was the lead cow of the herd, a powerful animal the California teen dropped with one shot, and finished off with a final round after she walked to where it had fallen.

It was a rare chance for the young hunter, who said hunting in California isn't an option.

"California only issues about 14 elk tags, and it's a draw so I don't get in," Williamson said.

She was familiar with rifles, though, having won a shooting contest with another student for the chance to make the trip to Colorado.

For Sholstak, an avid art student from Wisconsin, the Colorado hunt wasn't her first successful take. Wandkte first met Sholstak at a hunting camp in Wisconsin, where the then 15-year-old had just shot her first doe.

"When you see that look in a young person's eyes, you have to support it." Wandkte said. "Danny was my first choice from day one."

Sholstak and Wandkte took their elk at roughly the same time Tuesday. They rode horses to within 800 yards of the herd, and closed the gap slowly on foot. They were running out of cover, wondering how to get closer when the elk began slowly grazing their way toward the duo. One cow finally meandered to within yards of the waiting teen, and Sholstak took aim.

"Danny got right on her and took her down," Wandkte said.

It was a challenging day that included more than three miles of hiking over terrain with elevation changes in the 1000-foot range. For the self-proclaimed flat-landers from Wisconsin, it was a difficult trek.

"Danny has put in a lot of miles," Wandkte said.

Speirs, the 12-year-old from South Dakota, shot her elk Tuesday morning, helped field dress it and pack it out.

"Mine, I got her in the right spot the first time," said Speirs, who was impressed by the strength of the elk. "They're very strong willed animals, very tough."

News of the successful hunt traveled fast. Speirs said she had to hold the phone away from her ear while telling her father over the telephone.

Speirs comes from an eager hunting family that was so excited to hear the news of her harvest, they drove around their hometown announcing it from the window of their vehicle.

"They'd roll down their window and tell everyone they knew," Speirs said.

With three elk in the bag and already off to processing, the girls said they looked forward to eating the Colorado game.

"Some of us in this group, the only things in our freezer is what we've hunted," Engler said.

They couldn't have done it without help from the local outfitter who's been in business for nearly 20 years.

"Dick really helped us out with the guiding fees -- the really expensive part," Wandkte said.

The girls were chosen based on their interest in the program and their schoolwork.

"What it boiled down to was who had good enough grades that this wouldn't set them back," Engler said.

They accepted the adventure with only one requirement.

"Their responsibility is to pass it on to someone who has not been exposed to it," Engler said.

The three young women promised to go home to share their stories and the privilege of hunting with friends and family.

"I'm just gonna get them outside, outdoors, teaching them all the responsibilities of hunting," Speirs said.

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com.

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