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Lesson 2
Lesson 2

​​​​​​​​I Made a Mistake and Harvested the Wrong Animal, Now What Do I Do?

By: Gary Berlin

The fact of the matter is "mistaken kill" situations are not uncommon. An otherwise honest and ethical hunter can make a mistake and unintentionally break the law while in the pursuit of game.  

The manner in which the violation was committed and how the hunter handles the problem will often dictate how a wildlife officer addresses the matter.​

​As a former District Wildlife Manager, Regional Investigator, and wildlife officer with 25 years of experience, I have had ample opportunity to investigate situations where a hunter mistakenly harvested the wrong animal.  I have been witness to four different versions of this violation and in two of these situations; former Division of Wildlife employees were involved (and issued citations).  Don’t kid yourself; harvesting the wrong animal can happen to anyone, even the most careful of hunters.  

The best way to prevent the accidental take of an animal is to be reminded of one of the most important commandments of hunting safety; “Positively identify your target.  Know what is in front of and behind your target before squeezing the trigger.”  

CPW Classifies “Mistaken Kills” Into Three Categories:

1) Accidental Harvest

This is when a hunter exercises all reasonable precautions and due to an unforeseeable, chance happening, a big game animal is taken without the proper license.   In other words, the hunters is generally doing things right, but the results are wrong. 


  • An elk is shot and a second elk, hidden behind the first is inadvertently killed.
  • A bullet or arrow is deflected striking the target animal, or other object, and kills another animal.
  • A second undetectable animals stands up or runs into the line of fire at the same instant the hunter shoots, hitting the unintended animal
  • A hunter shoots an animal from a reasonable distance and using reasonable care and precaution but misjudges the length of antlers or brow tines (ex. 4” antler/brow tine) or size/age of the animal (ex. lone bear cub mistaken for adult)  

2) Careless 

This is when a hunter acts without due regard for the possible outcome. In other words, the hunter is not taking all of the precautions that they should which results in an illegal animal being taken.


  • ​A hunter shoots at an animal and it disappears. The hunter fails to check and see if the animal is down and shoots at another animal, or; shoots at what he/she thinks is the same animal without observing visible wounds and shoots a second animal.
  • A hunter shoots an animal in violation of antler point or sex regulations and that animal could have been correctly identified with more observation, closer observation, or use of binoculars.  (This is the category for the situation described above.)
  • A hunter shoots at a running big game animal, and or, at a distance beyond the hunter’s ability to consistently or reliably make a good shot and shoots another animal unintentionally.

3) Negligent

This is when a hunter acts with a gross deviation from the standard of care a reasonable person would exercise.  In this scenario, the hunter’s actions show a blatant disregard for safe and/or ethical hunting practices resulting in an illegal animal or animals being taken.  Almost all incidents where an animal of the wrong species is taken will fall into this category.   


  • ​A hunter shoots numerous rounds into a herd of big game until an animal falls and finds multiple dead or injured animals.
  • A hunter takes big game under environmental conditions that make it practically impossible to accurately identify the big game animal being shot.
  • A hunter shoots without first positively identifying their target.
  • A hunter shoots the wrong species. (Moose for elk, deer for elk…)

Regardless of whether it was due to an “accident,” “carelessness,” or “negligence,” the manner in which an errant hunter addresses their mistake often dictates how the investigating wildlife officer will respond; whether a summons will be assessed and if a summons is issued, the severity of the legal action taken against the violator.

S.T.O.P. ( Sit -Think - Observe – Plan)​

The acronym STOP ( Sit -Think - Observe – Plan) is often used to provide guidance on what to do when lost, as this allows the involved person to start thinking rationally.  The same thing (STOP) must occur when a hunter finds that they are involved in a legal or ethical predicament.  The first thing a hunter who unintentionally shoots the wrong animal must do is admit to himself, “I messed up.”  Saying this (or something similar, you pick the adjective),  places  a hunter in the mindset that they have a problem that a law enforcement officer must be contacted to fix.  

Notify CPW

Admitting fault is the hard part, now a hunter can seek a resolution to their problem.  With few exceptions for certain crimes, wildlife officers have great discretion in whether to initiate criminal proceedings against a violator.  If a hunter unintentionally shoots the wrong game animal, following these steps will help rectify the problem.  

Step 1

If you have immediate cell service or have some way in which to communicate with a local law enforcement officer or agency, self-report the crime.  Call the Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), local sheriff, police department, or Colorado State Patrol dispatch center and notify them that you need to turn yourself in for unintentionally killing the wrong animal.  The dispatcher will notify the CPW who will send an officer to your location to investigate.  Unless told to move the animal by the DPW officer, leave it exactly where it was shot.  If you don’t have immediate cell service and there is any chance the meat will spoil before you can contact a law enforcement officer, use the following approach to insure you do not allow the meat to spoil.

Step 2

Field dress the animal and care for it as if it was your own meat.  Failing to do so will result in additional violations of waste of game.  Do not void and put your carcass tag on the animal.  Now sit tight and wait for the officer.

An Officer Will Investigate the Scene

The officer will investigate the scene and determine whether the act of illegally harvesting the game animal was accidental, careless, or negligent. Once the officer determines the circumstances which led to the killing of the wrong animal, the officer will most likely issue a citation.  

For lesser offenses, similar to the example described above, the officer will probably issue a citation for “failure to comply with the provisions of a license,” and consider a minimal fine and assess the fewest number of points against the hunter’s privileges.  The hunter will be advised to hunt more carefully and be allowed to continue with their hunt.  The animal in question will not be given to the hunter, but will be seized by the investigating officer and donated as per CPW policies and procedures.  

If the officer determines aggravating factors including negligence, careless hunting or that the animal was taken intentionally, the officer will likely pursue more serious charges against the hunter.  In no case will the hunter be allowed to possess the animal.

Failure to Self-Report

Should a hunter fail to self-report and is apprehended by a law enforcement officer, it is almost a guarantee that an officer will not be lenient with the violator.  Fines exceeding $1,000 are probable, as is the loss of hunting privileges. Whereas, self-reporting will likely result in minimal fine, minimal assessment of license suspension points and the unlikely suspension of privileges.    

Should you find yourself as the hunter involved in one of the situations described above, follow the two-step process; turn yourself into law enforcement and field dress the animal.  The investigating officer will be appreciative of your honesty and can be much more lenient dealing with your mistake. 

In Summary, Mistakes Happen!​

But an honest approach to resolving the mistake within the confines of our laws is the only way to make it right. The wildlife resources in Colorado are precious to all of us and as hunters, we must be the stewards of the resource to insure our future generations can enjoy the hunt.