HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. — In the open space just south of Highlands Ranch, you never know what you may encounter.
“There’s bears. There’s elk. There’s mountain lions, coyotes, turkeys,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) district manager for Littleton and Highlands Ranch, Justin Olson.
“Golden eagles, bears, coyotes, mountain lions,” said Mark Giebel, Highlands Ranch Backcountry Wilderness Area director.
Giebel knows these windy trails and dirt roads better than anyone, and he has seen almost all there is to see here.
“I still have not seen a mountain lion,” Giebel said.
And while Giebel appreciates all the wildlife here, his favorite just might be the herd of elk.
“I think he was just chasing a cow there,” he said as he spotted a bull elk.
Giebel and his team guide every elk hunt on this land.
“Make sure the direction of our shots is always safe,” he said.
That’s for good reason, because while the hunts may not surprise you, the location — well, that’s a different story.
“Totally, yeah,” Giebel said. “It can be very surprising to some.”
“It’s 13 square miles, 8,000 acres. And it’s right in the middle of suburbia,” Olson said. “There’s a high level of interaction between wildlife and people.”
Just beyond the houses, the schools, the churches and the restaurants of Highlands Ranch sits the Backcountry Wilderness Area where hikers, bikers, trail runners — and yes, hunters — converge on some of the most scenic space right beside the city.
“It’s the jewel of the Denver metro area,” said Mike Bailey, general manager of the Highlands Ranch Community Association.
“It’s really world-class elk hunting,” Giebel said.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife issues about 14 bull elk tags and about 10 cow elk tags annually.
“Hunting is a very important management tool for us,” Olson said. “It’s an important form of conservation. It keeps wildlife populations very healthy.”
Let’s explore that further.
“Hunting is beneficial in many ways,” Giebel said. “It helps keep the elk wild. It helps with the population and resource destruction. It keeps them moving so they’re not just parking in one area.”
Both Giebel and Olson say without hunting, the herd may cease to exist at all.
“Allowing hunting to occur in a very safe and controlled manner, these animal populations are kept at a very healthy levels,” Olson said.
He explained that if the elk overpopulate, they don’t have enough to graze on and become more susceptible to disease.
“And therefore, then see decreased levels of being able to fight off various parasites and things like that,” Olson said.
But hunting here is not without controversy.
“I don’t think that’s a wise idea considering the number of people with animals using the trails on a regular basis,” said Ellie Wouda, who was out on a trail with her dog. “I’m sure they try as best they can to keep the hunters where they’re supposed to be, but a stray bullet could potentially hit a kid or an animal.”
“There’s kids. There’s people biking, hiking, dogs,” said Karen Hunter of Littleton. “Somebody might accidentally shoot a dog instead of an elk.”
Which is why Highlands Ranch made the commitment eight years ago to ensure every single hunt in this open space has a mandatory guide.
“They’re guided hunts,” Giebel said. “They’re regulated. We actually provide the guide that goes out.”
“Mark Giebel is one of the most passionate individuals that you’ll ever meet,” Bailey said. “And that’s truly the success of our backcountry. Mark has over 30 years experience with HRCA. That’s one of the reasons we guide because we are close to homes and trails and stuff like that.”
Because of those painstaking efforts to ensure public safety, for every critic, there’s also a supporter of this program.
“I absolutely believe in it,” said Kim Grant, who was out walking with a friend. “If they don’t take care of the herd in a controlled manner, then the elk will go hungry and there will be disease in the herd. It’s the best scenario in order for it to have survivability and longevity going forward.”
It is highly controlled. The hunts only take place behind locked gates.
Even though it’s all the same open space, hikers, bikers and trail runners use a different area of the space. There’s also a huge commitment to ethical hunts – shooting to kill.
“We put a lot of emphasis on that because that’s the ethical way to do it and these animals deserve that,” said Giebel.
Accuracy is paramount, no matter the weapon.
"We actually make the archery hunters qualify and show us they’re actually capable of shooting a certain distance before they get to hunt,” Giebel said.
Conservation is one of the backcountry’s main missions.
“Our ultimate goal is to get as many people out and immersed in nature as possible,” said AnnaKate Hein, environmental education program supervisor for the Backcountry Wilderness Area.
Hein says each summer, about 1,400 kids utilize the space as part of a robust summer camp program.
“Building forts and rolling and digging in the mud and catching grasshoppers,” Hein said. “To have a space that’s this large and this wild so close in proximity to a metro area is really incredible.”
An island of beautiful natural diversity in a sea of urban sprawl.
“This is the gem of my district,” Olson said. “The habitat is very healthy. Highlands Ranch has managed it very well over the years that the resources here are phenomenal.”
“This is absolutely magnificent,” Grant said.
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