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1880-1900: Exploration & Settlement
1880-1900: Exploration & Settlement
1890 Durango

When Second Lieutenant John Charles Fremont of the Corps of Topographic Engineers led an expedition into Colorado in 1844, he observed abundant game in North Park and the Yampa Valley. But Fremont saw little agricultural promise in the lands west of Craig. Likewise, in 1869 John Wesley Powell described northwestern Colorado as inhospitable, save for the natural meadows and cottonwood groves around Brown's Park.1

These observations were consistent with descriptions that the researcher T.R. Vale found in the journals of 29 emigrants traveling through Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Colorado.2 Vale concluded that bunchgrass was dominant in the west's mountain meadows and valley bottoms. Historical narratives and photographic evidence also suggest that, before settlement by Euroamericans, bunchgrasses were the predominant vegetation in mountain valleys and on slopes that comprise the great majority of mule deer habitats in the west today.   The shrubs that are important to mule deer were present but sparsely distributed across the western landscape at much lower densities than what we see today. 3  This increase in woody vegetation, particularly with regard to species of trees is plainly visible in the John Fielder books which compare recent photos with those of William Henry Jackson that were taken in the latter years of the 19th century.18

The 1859 discovery of gold along Cherry Creek near Denver precipitated Colorado's first gold rush, which brought an estimated 100,000 people into Colorado. As the surge of civilization swept against the Rockies, miners passed over the Continental Divide and found rich gold placers in the Blue and Eagle River valleys. Following the establishment of Breckenridge in 1859, hundreds of men fanned out across the West Slope, driving up pressure on game animals by both market and subsistence hunters.3

Cattle were first introduced into Colorado in 1850.  By the 1860's, herds of cattle had replaced buffalo in the valleys of the Rio Grande, the Arkansas and the South Platte4 while hundreds of thousands of sheep were being grazed in the San Luis Valley and throughout southern Colorado.  Railroads helped speed up settlement of the West Slope, and by the mid-1870s, homesteads dotted North Park, Middle Park and the Yampa River Valley. 1

In addition to increasing hunting pressure, settlers also introduced livestock, which competed with wildlife for forage. The winter of 1871-72 decimated western livestock herds, but by 1895, an estimated 20 million sheep were stocked in 11 western states, a stocking rate that was maintained for the next half century.5 This intensive grazing eliminated or reduced the most palatable and nutritious grasses and forbs, and allowed an increase in the size, density, and vigor of the shrub community in a dramatic habitat shift seen across the west. This effect was amplified by a reduction in the size, intensity and frequency of fire, particularly intentional burns set by Native Americans, which had periodically suppressed or eliminated woody plants, and had maintained ranges that were predominantly bunchgrasses.1

The absence or marked reduction of fire over such extensive areas favored the development of sagebrush, bitterbrush, and mountain-mahogany, all of which are primary mule deer forage. Research has documented that in comparison to European settlement times, sagebrush has increased many-fold on productive sites in Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, and Nevada.3   The absence of fire also favored establishment of western juniper into a big sagebrush community in Oregon's Owyhee Plateau as early as the 1870's, foreshadowing similar changes across the west in the decades to come.  At Mountain Meadows, Utah, researchers documented a 500 percent increase in Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma) between 1862 and 1934, which reduced mule deer forage.6

In 1878 a market hunter, named Frank Mayer, recorded his hunting exploits in Middle Park Basin near Kremmling. At the conclusion of that year's hunting expedition, Mayer had killed and shipped nearly 250 big game animals, including 89 mule deer during a span of 78 days.  The diary entry for October 1, 1878 includes the following comment:

"As the migration is now well begun, I encounter elk and deer at all hours of the day.  They are crossing the river junction (the confluence of the Blue River and the Colorado River just south of Kremmling, Colorado) in such numbers that shooting them requires no skill."7

As early as 1880 a deer and elk meat industry developed in North Park. One pioneer family, the Rhea's of North Park, provided over 2,000 pounds of dried elk and deer meat for Denver and Cheyenne butchers. At the same time, a major elk industry operated in the Meeker area, where thousands of pounds of elk meat was shipped during the late 1880s and early 1890s to Denver, Cheyenne, and points east. This business died prior to 1900 because the slaughter of elk so depleted the herds that areas once swarming with the animals were no longer profitable for hunting.1 In his book, "Big Game Hunting in the Rockies and in the Great Plains," published in 1899, Roosevelt said, "The wilderness has been conquered and all the game killed off."