Onlookers admire the elk herd on the Valley Floor, which prohibits hunting. On Saturday, an out-of-state hunter took a bull elk on public land near the Valley Floor, which has caused concern within the community. (Photo courtesy of Meredith Muller)

Before entering Telluride, an elk herd, which calls the Valley Floor home, typically greets those coming to town. Tourists pull over to watch and take pictures of the wildlife, and locals slow down to watch the tourists and the elk.

On Saturday, a bull elk was shot and killed near the Valley Floor, and the news quickly spread throughout the community. The bull elk was taken on public land, but after being shot, ran back to its herd on the private land of the Valley Floor, where the animal later died and was packed out by the hunter.

“From everything we can tell from our investigation from the GPS and all the electronic devices the hunter had on marking his location, he was on public land where it is legal to hunt,” said John Livingston, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) public information officer.

The hunter was visiting from out-of-state, Livingston added. The elk was shot on the south side of the Valley Floor, between the private land and Mountain Village, locally known as the “Wedge.” Livingston explained that the portion of public land is part of Game Management Unit (GMU) 70. Hunting is prohibited on the private land of the Valley Floor where people often watch the herd graze. The Town of Telluride owns that land.

“If the elk had been 10 yards further down the hill, maybe it would have been on the Valley Floor and on that private land. The hunter was able to get this done by the skin of his teeth; there’s no doubt about that,” Livingston said.

Throughout the Dolores, Dry Creek, Norwood and Groundhog region, which includes Telluride, there are five GMUs. In a 2019 report from CPW titled “Big Game Hunting in Southwest Colorado,” the estimated elk population was 16,900. The area covers a “2,800-square-mile landscape from the west side of the Uncompahgre Plateau to the Utah state line and south to New Mexico,” according to the report.

Rocky Mountain elk live on average of eight to 12 years. Based on antler size, the bull elk shot Saturday was estimated to be five or six years old, Livingston said.

CPW District Wildlife Manager Mark Caddy investigated the incident. Caddy confirmed the hunter used a rifle and reiterated that, according to his investigation, the animal was taken legally, and the shot was conducted safely. He believes the killing will not impact the herd on the Valley Floor.

“Breeding season is already over, there are other bulls that will step up next year, and so I am not concerned about the overall herd,” Caddy said.

In recent years, the use of maps on phones and GPS has increased, Caddy explained, and makes it easier for hunters to discover public land they might not have known about otherwise.

“The only thing that we can fault the hunter for is not knowing the politics of the area. We understand that’s a delicate issue,” Livingston said.

Meredith Muller lived in Telluride for over 40 years, but moved to Denver last spring. She heard about the incident on Saturday through Facebook. Muller was shocked to learn that the shooting took place so close to the Valley Floor.

“The Valley Floor was proclaimed ‘forever wild’ and was thought of as a safe haven for wildlife and open space. To see that magnificent animal gunned down after living there with his herd for so many years is heartbreaking. … It’s devastating to the entire community,” she said.

She suggested a plaque should be placed, similar to the series along the Idarado Legacy Trail, near the Valley Floor explaining the area’s history and meaning.

“The public needs to be educated about the Valley Floor being sacred land,” Muller said.

Another local, Alison James, acknowledged that while the shot was legal, “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

James said the Valley Floor herd is “not only a tourist draw but also seen by locals as part of the family.” She also expressed concern about the proximity between the public land where hunting is allowed and the popular walking trail and homes near the highway.

“Having people shooting high-powered (or any) guns so close to where people commonly walk is a safety issue, and therefore this wedge of land needs to be off limits for shooting,” James said.

Local Kiersten Talbert echoed that sentiment.

“Given the USFS (U.S. Forest Service) prohibition against discharging a weapon within 150 yards of ‘any place where people are likely to be,’ I find it incredible this hunt could have been conducted in a legal manner in such close proximity to hiking and biking trails. I hope restrictions will be put in place immediately to stop another unethical hunter from exploiting this wedge issue,” she said.

Livingston recognized that shooting any game is up to the hunter’s discretion, and some make choices others would not have made in the same situation.

“Hunters often have to make their own ethical choices when faced with the question of whether or not to take an animal. While this area we are talking about is legally open to hunting, some have made choices in the past not to hunt there or to pass up a shot on an animal in that area, while others, like the hunter on Saturday, will take the shot,” Livingston said. “A lot of factors go into those decisions, and each person makes them differently.”