MONTROSE COUNTY – The ring tone on Renzo DelPiccolo’s cell phone is the high screech of a red tail hawk.
I only heard it once. Mostly, Renzo was listening to the emergency radio in his Colorado Division of Wildlife pickup as we bounced up a dirt road on Sims Mesa before dawn. Renzo is the Area Wildlife Manager in the Montrose office. During hunting season – we were in fourth season, Combined Limited Deer and Elk – Renzo and the other officers try to get out as much as possible in “game warden” mode. Law enforcement is only about 15-20 percent of the job, he told me, but it’s an important part. Renzo always wears his sidearm.
Sometimes it’s a difficult balance. Wildlife officers in Colorado, unlike some neighboring states, are trained wildlife biologists. They do hard science. They trap and collar animals for survival studies. They advise on habitat preservation and restoration. They work with endangered species. But they also take calls on big-game poaching, on trespassing, on illegal night hunting, on felons in possession of firearms. “It can be a little hair-raising at times,” he said.
As we rolled up Government Springs Road in first light, Renzo spotted a white pickup with an ATV trailer parked off in the sagebrush. “Very interesting,” he said, backing up to get a clear look at the license plates. “I ran into those guys a couple of days ago. They were sitting out in a meadow with scopes and sights and all kind of fancy optics. And they refused to tell me what they were up to. They didn’t have their rifles with them. But they were obviously watching something. Probably trophy hunters.”
Renzo called dispatch and asked them to run the plates. They came back “clear” – no problems with the owner. Renzo thought about hiking out to try to find them, then thought better of it. “Maybe later,” he said.
We turned onto Wildcat Road and climbed to where the double-track was barely visible on the bedrock. A dawn wind whipped the long-needle branches of ponderosa pines. Up ahead, a pickup with hunter-orange inside pulled aside to meet us. “I’m going to check their licenses and their rifles,” Renzo told me. “You’re welcome to get out, too. Just pay attention. And don’t get between me and them.”
Later Renzo told me that “officer safety is ingrained in you. You’re constantly watching people’s hands, you’re watching movements inside the cab. These are people with guns. And knives. You’re looking for blood on their clothes, any evidence of a kill – deer hair on the tailgate.”
It turned out this couple – a man and a woman – had drawn the proper license for the season. So that was in order. Where are your caps? Renzo asked. They had vests on but no orange caps. We thought it was just a matter of square inches of orange, they said. Yes, Renzo replied, but a percentage of those inches have to be on your head. “What if you were working the oaks here? And the only thing visible was your head?
“I’m going to check your rifle now,” Renzo said moving around to the passenger door as the woman handed the rifle out. “Don’t drop my baby,” the man said plaintively. A quick check showed no cartridge in the chamber, so that was OK, too.
Renzo is by nature a gregarious person. He went into chat mode. He wouldn’t write them a ticket for the caps. “Just stop in at Walmart; three bucks each.” He asked if they’d seen any elk. They hadn’t. Just a lot of beds. “I guess that’s why they call it hunting,” Renzo joked, and we parted company.
Renzo drove with his head out the window. He was looking at tracks in the snow: rabbit, deer, but no elk. Renzo grew up in Arvada, Colo., near Table Mountain and Golden. “We had a pond in the back yard,” he said with lingering affection. “Frogs. Birds. Everything. It was the perfect place to create a young game warden.” A black-and-white flurry of magpies leaped up suddenly. “Might be a kill site.” We drove on.
Sometimes Renzo comes across a carcass left in the field, with the head and rack missing. Besides depressing, he said, “That can be considered a felony. The law says you must harvest all edible portions of the animal, not including the internal organs.”
We were driving through a recent burn, “controlled burn” I called it. “We don’t call it controlled,” Renzo said with a smile. “Prescribed burn. But it looks like this one didn’t really do what they wanted it to.” Too many man-high oaks remained. “In ponderosa forest you want to use fire to clear out the understory.”
Now he was riffing on the biology part of the job. “Ponderosa bark just sloughs off fire; these [blackened] trees will be fine. Deer need a young ecosystem, not 20-year-old oaks and other tough, not-very-nutritious stuff.”
He moved seamlessly to the Uncompahgre Project, a 10-year deer survival study on the Uncompahgre Plateau that DOW oversaw. He got excited when he talked about the fearless, talented helicopter pilots who zipped around like dragonflies mere feet off the ground so that biologists could drop nets over running deer. The deer were then measured and tagged. Did the collars have GPS, I asked? No, they are radio collars, Renzo replied. And “the collar emits a mortality signal when it doesn’t move for a certain period of time. We go out and find it. See what happened to the animal.”
The highly successful Uncompahgre Project, and the role DOW played in it, helped to land the $8.5 million Department of Agriculture grant announced this summer for forest restoration on the Plateau. This is a big deal, Renzo said. A chance to do some really good, large-scale habitat work.
Down near the bottom of Sims Mesa, there was that white pickup again. Nobody in sight. “Very interesting,” Renzo drawled. “Trophy hunters for sure.”
What was the scariest job you were ever on, I asked?
“My first year,” he said, “23 years ago. In the San Louis Valley. I participated in a huge take down. Everything was for sale there: illegal meat, hides, horns. We had a DOW officer undercover posing as a taxidermist. The morning of the bust we had over 200 officers involved in arresting 100 perpetrators. You knocked on that door and you didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Back on the valley floor south of Montrose surrounded by winter-gold fields, Renzo looked pensive. “This valley used to have some of the best pheasant hunting in Colorado. It wasn’t that long ago. But they’re gone completely.”
Why? “Habitat loss, we think. New subdivisions. And there used to be a lot of grains grown here, barley for Coors, wheat.” I remembered the big silo Coors had on the edge of Delta. “Those grain fields provided cover and safe nesting. Now with alfalfa, the cutting practices, the timing of the cut, you’re cutting nests, cutting chicks.”
There was still a lot of wildlife in southwest Colorado that got his boyish enthusiasm going. The success of the lynx reintroduction. The “cackle” of migrating sandhill cranes. The sight of an hours-old fawn. I told him I’d backed away from one curled up in dense forest this summer. I didn’t want to leave my scent.
“It’s OK,” Renzo said. “It’s OK to touch ‘em. The mothers don’t care. Just put ‘em back. People call us. We say, just put ‘em back. That’s their best chance for survival.
“You know, when I started out, this was the most desirable job in the state. They had 700 applicants for seven positions. I still love it. It’s a way of life.”