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A Dose of Reality

Column by Hal Walter

Wildlife – November 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

THIS MORNING, while I was disposing of the first cup of coffee off the back deck, I heard the pitiful trumpeting alarm of a deer in distress. I walked around the side of the house in my boxer shorts to see what the commotion was about. Usually this sort of noise is the result of a doe and fawn having been separated by my fence, which previous owners unfortunately built with woven wire.

I could make out the shapes of deer bounding back and forth erratically. I saw some smaller gray shapes and heard more screaming. Then, one of the smaller gray shapes, obviously a coyote, rose up on the back of one of the deer, grabbed it by the neck and took it down. There was growling, snarling in the tall grass and shrubs. The other coyotes — I think four in all — rushed in. Magpies cheered them on from surrounding fenceposts, currant bushes, and scrub piƱons.

This Wild Kingdom moment went on within a stone’s throw of my neighbor’s porch, and while my son watched a Baby Einstein “Wordsworth” video just through the window from where I stood.

The timing was interesting since the topic of “conservation biology” had been at the forefront of my thoughts due to my recent application for a position with a nonprofit group.

This moment of weakness (actually applying for a real job) came from my habit of occasionally perusing the High Country News classified ads for environmental jobs. Often I find interesting positions announced there. However, rarely had I seen one I thought I might be qualified for, or that would not require a move to some undesirable ghetto location, like Boulder or Santa Fe. The position that caught my eye was Conservation Organizer for a group called Wild Connections. Better known as Upper Arkansas South Platte Project, the organization has a conservation plan for the public lands in the Upper Arkansas and South Platte headwaters.

These jobs are of interest because while studying for my degree in journalism at the University of Colorado I was drawn to the Earth sciences, and found an emphasis of study in the Environmental Conservation program (I think it’s now called Environmental Sciences). Unfortunately there was no “minor” offered, and so classes like “Map Interpretation” and “Glacial Geology” are just an anomaly on my transcript. But I’ve always wondered what I’d missed out on.

The job description actually looked like something I could do with my present skill set, journalism being the all-encompassing career that it is. Plus, I already live in the geographic location and much of the work could be done from a “virtual office.”

So one day I sat down and wrote a letter to the hiring committee. I explained that I have an intimate working knowledge of the ecosystems, wildlife, and plant life in this area, as well as the many issues stemming from multiple uses, recreation, industrial tourism, development, and population growth.

Since a good deal of Wild Connection’s plan is centered on roadless and wilderness areas, I explained my 25 years of exploring the trails and backroads in this region and that I have logged thousands of miles running, hiking, mountain-biking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, backpacking, and riding horses and saddle donkeys over many of these backcountry routes. I wrote that over the years I have come to recognize the need for a broad coalition of quiet use enthusiasts to protect these wilderness and roadless areas from increasing threats.

I DESCRIBED MY EXPERIENCE in the journalism field for this past quarter-century and my connections with the media network in this region. I also noted some rather basic experience organizing and promoting events.

I told how I became aware of environmental and public lands policies early in life as my father worked with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Interior, and my mother worked for the U.S. Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. Land-use topics were often part of the discussion around the dinner table and I curiously explored textbooks on range management, wildlife, and forestry textbooks in the family bookcase.

And of course I had to get personal with them and say that I viewed the position as “an opportunity to pull together all of my experiences and skills to promote a responsible and sustainable plan to protect and restore native ecosystems” for future backcountry enthusiasts, including my 3-year-old son.

After writing the letter I read it over and thought: “Good god, what horsesh*t!” But I sent it off anyway with my resume attached. Frankly, I doubted I’d even hear back.

So I was quite surprised when later that evening I received an e-mail thanking me for my application. Within a few days I had participated in an informal telephone interview. And shortly thereafter I was scheduled for a more formal interview before the hiring committee.

By now, there was already this nagging question: “Do I really want to do this?”

One Saturday morning I drove to Castle Rock for the interview, which was held at the library. The people on the hiring committee were quite friendly, and seemed like the type I’d like to work with. Still, it felt a little like the inquisition. What they do is go around (and around) the table with each member of the panel asking you a canned question. Then they finish it off by having the panelists ask questions they came up with as a result of your answers to the first set of questions. It leaves you feeling sort of like you’ve been picked over for breadcrumbs by ducks.

I left there thinking that I’d neither done particularly well nor poorly. Surely, I thought, among the 20 or so people they told me had applied, they could find somebody better suited for this. I drove directly to the Douglas County Open Space, located just west of the Greenland exit off I-25. I changed into my running clothes and found a wonderful trail system winding through grasslands, cattail-lined ponds, stands of rusty-red Gambel oak and sandstone caprocks. The side excursion made the trip worthwhile regardless of whether I was chosen for the job.

THE DAYS WENT BY and I wondered whether I might be offered the position. There also was the nagging question of what to do if I actually was offered the job. I still didn’t know the answer when two weeks after the interview I got the call saying they had chosen someone else. As much as I would have liked to be chosen, I was actually relieved to have the decision made for me.

To get back to reality, witnessing a pack of coyotes drag down a deer is a fairly stiff dose to start the day. I waited until midmorning when I thought the coyotes had left to inspect the scene. By then the big ravens were squabbling with the magpies over the remains. As I walked toward the site I saw one of the coyotes was still hanging around. It hid behind some currant bushes then finally loped away as I approached. I found the signs of struggle, smashed grass and a drag mark that went on for 25 paces. I was unsure whether the deer dragged itself that far in its final moments as the coyotes were gnawing at it, or whether the coyotes dragged the carcass after it was dead.

At the end of the drag path was a big fawn. There was very little left. The hide had been peeled away and some veal-pink meat remained clinging to the spine and rib bones. The deer’s head was still intact with a glassy upturned eye and the tongue lolling out of the mouth. By the time I returned to the house the stray coyote was back on the carcass.

That afternoon a golden eagle arrived on the scene, battling with the magpies and ravens for the remaining scraps. I’m sure there’s a lesson in all of this.

Hal Walter still frequently disposes of used water, coffee and red wine in the traditional manner, despite the emergence this year of a trophy home on the ridgetop overlooking his home in the Wet Mountains.