Bison, Book Cliffs, Little Creek Roadless (cow only) Kinda long....

marksjeep

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Grand Jct, CO
I thought I would post this one up. I'm not too big on story telling, but this is a pretty neat tag in a well known but difficult to access unit. Enjoy.

This journey began in May, when my credit card was hit from the state of Utah. There was no hiding the grin on my face over a charge alert from Chase. A brief period of suspense and uncertainty followed, as several tags cost the same so there was no way to know what I had drawn. 2 days later and I had my answer:

SUCCESSFUL: Bison
Hunt: Book Cliffs, Little Creek Roadless (cow only)
Weapon: Any Legal Weapon

There are 2 nonresident tags for this hunt, I drew the random. Unreal. This was a new hunt on the unit, and applicants were advised in the unit description to be prepared for back county travel and the need to access very remote areas. The Little Creek Roadless unit is a small sub-unit in the Book Cliffs of Utah. It is approximately 15 miles long by 10 miles wide, nestled at the top of the Book Cliffs due west of Grand Junction, Colorado. As the name implies, the area is roadless. It is bounded on the west by Ute Tribal lands and on the other three sides by the cliffs and canyons of the Book Cliffs. There are only two points of access into the unit, both of which take you up dirt roads from the floor of the desert north of Moab to the top of the Book Cliffs escarpment, climbing about 3000 feet along the way. Most of the land in the unit is State land, with a token section of BLM here and there. The area was purchased by TNC and turned over to the State of Utah some time in the 1990s. It has been managed as a roadless area ever since.

Even though this unit is within a few hours of home, I had never been there and access is notoriously difficult. Miles of backpacking or riding stock are needed to access the area. Luckily, we own a few horses and mules. My wife and daughter both participate in the 4H ranch riding program and ride frequently. I, however, do not. I might get on an animal and walk it around the farm once in a while. But, I'm not a horseman nor do I have any idea how to properly pack. This was going to be a crash course in basic horsemanship and packing, in addition to a once in a lifetime hunt. I've always wanted to learn how to ride and pack, but making it a priority in life never happened due to work, farm chores, dad duties, etc. I help with 4H here locally, and the motto we have the kids follow is "Learn By Doing". Time to learn.

Trail rides and a few lessons began in earnest almost immediately. Lots of weeknight trips to some close-by public lands to practice riding with my daughter was a great way to learn and spend time together without arguing about chores or some other nonsense.

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My wife belongs to numerous horse and mule discussion boards. She got word of a 3 day packing clinic over on the front range being taught by a professional packer out of Montana. She didn't quite encourage me to go, more like insisted. I guess there was a little concern for the health and well being of our animals on this hunt... something about "you're not taking my mules hunting unless you go to this clinic"...

Time for a road trip.

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A long weekend well spent, I now have an idea of just how much I really don't know about horses, mules, and packing. Deckers and sawbucks, panniers and manties. How the hell do you tie a diamond hitch and why not just use a bungee cord?

Let the practice continue...There's only one way to figure this out.

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After a bit more riding locally, my wife and I penciled in a trip to the roadless area to ride and scout while we had company in town to juggle kids. The truck and trailer would make a good base camp while we explored the area and got more saddle time on some decent trails, and hopefully located some bison. This is a special area. As you rise out of the barren Eastern Utah desert, the vegetation changes from rabbit brush and grease wood to oak brush and sage. After a 10 or so mile drive, past one ghost town on a road which is cut into a creek bed and then rises high above the canyon bottoms, you arrive in woods of pine, spruce, and aspen. The air is cool and crisp, and it actually rains a little bit up here, something we've not seen much of in Grand Junction this year. The ridges are mostly wooded and the valley bottoms are grass and sage. With spring fed creeks running cool all summer, native Colorado River Cutthroat Trout thrive.

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Our first ride in was about 6 miles on an old abandoned road, cut into the side of a prominent ridge on the west side of the unit. Luck be upon us, our first ride in and there they were about a mile out across the valley. We were there in the middle of the bison rut, and the roars could be heard from the other side of the valley. The mules were not too keen on the roaring, ears pegged and senses alert. We watched the bison run around and do bison things from the distance. No need to push our way in there today.

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We rode lots of miles and explored many trails. No more bison were located but I had a good orientation on this part of the unit which is invaluable for an area so remote. On X and Google Earth map scouting waypoints were checked, springs located, and trails tracked. It was a good weekend and we learned a lot while having a great time in the back country. We ran into several folks out riding mules and enjoying the area. Most had helpful hints and info about the bison.

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There were a few sore knees and chapped rear ends, but everyone arrived home safely, although the mules were tired. We logged about 25 miles in 2 days on the mules, they earned a break. It was a great trip to figure out what tack worked, what didn't, what gear I needed to get, and what I could leave at home.

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marksjeep

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We're now approaching August, and I've got one scouting trip into the unit completed and have been riding a few times a week. That's all well and good, but driving home from the scouting trip I realized how much practice the mules and I are going to need with the packing side of this. One of our mules, the one I usually ride (Betsy) is a retired park service packer. She's young, but suffered an eye injury resulting in partial blindess in one eye, so she was retired. Our other two mules don't pack that we are aware of. Both have spent considerable time in the back country according to previous owners, but not packed. They're both also a bit more to handle than Betsy, who has the demeanor of a old lab. Otis, my wife's riding mule, is solid and smart. He just likes to walk out very quickly and is not very patient. Amos Moses, our youngest and smallest mule, also has the largest personality of the three. He is a big mule in a small body.

Lots of hours were spent at the hitching post fitting pack saddles and tack to the animals. I had a mix-match of stuff: a new decker from the packer who taught the packing clinic, an older sawbuck from craigslist, an ancient sawbuck, a variety of panniers, and lots of odds and ends. High lines were rigged between trees in the yard and animals were left out to learn some patience. Manties were tied with bales of hay, pack saddles were cinched, britchens were adjusted, and we rode around the property getting the animals used to the tack.

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As we progressed with getting animals geared up to pack, we started taking them to some local public land trails for more practice. We are blessed with lots of access and trails very close by. On our first trip out, it became clear that my riding mule (Betsy) had transitioned well from packing to riding. Otis, however, was not transitioning from riding to packing, at all. The dang mule hit every tree on the trail with the manties. He seemed to have zero sense of space when he was packing, crashing into every rock and tree along side of him.

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My wife says "well what do you expect....you're riding a pack mule and packing a riding mule". Time to retool.

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Much better. Much much much much better. While I prefer riding Betsy, her experience packing is beyond obvious, even to me. This mule has seen it all and loading her down with 140 pounds of hay is just a walk in the park for her. I don't love riding Otis, but I'm going to have to adapt and work with him. He's fast. He's faster than I like. But, like Betsy, he has a lot of trail experience and he knows what to do. The next several weekends were spent packing them up and down the trails close to home. Lots of time tying manties, reinforcing relationships with the mules, and time in the saddle.

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Still unsure of how many animals I was going to need on this hunt, I started working with our youngest mule, Amos Moses. Amos tends to be a jerk some times, and a rock star other times. He's small, strong, and has not packed that we know of. We've ponied him several times on trail rides and he's learned his place in the line. We fitted him up with a pack saddle, and I took him off into the desert with Betsy and Otis for a test run.

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Well, either we got damn lucky or this little bugger has packed before. Rockstar! He falls right in line behind Betsy, maintains perfect distance, doesn't cause any drama, and carries 150 pounds of grain like it's nothing. This is awesome, we're starting to run out of practice time and persnickety mules are not what I need right now.

We're now into September. I had been hoping to pack into the northern access to the unit over Labor Day weekend to scout a different area and practice packing. Well, hay fields are what they are, and haying made that impossible. We got out and did some riding, but it was all local. Fast forward a week or so, and I was able to get a weekend cleared out once the hay was all put up. My daughter and I loaded up Betsy, Otis, and Amos Moses for an overnighter into the roadless.

The road to the northern access is closer to home, but it's also a washboarded out oil field route. Awful. We manage to haul the animals to the top of the bookcliffs without issue, and proceed along the ridge road to the access. We saddle everyone up, I will ride Otis, my daughter will ride Betsy, and we're packing Amos Moses. We head into the roadless, having never been here and never ridden the trail from the ridge we are on into the canyon bottom below. Most of these trails are not even mapped. I found the trail down into the canyon on google earth, but any additional info about it is difficult to find anywhere online.

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marksjeep

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On down the hill we go. To say this was a trail is an understatement, it descends about 1200 vertical feet in roughly a mile. Rock outcrops, ledges, switchbacks and slides all appear under your feet. The mules handle it well, strong and sound, with enough experience to pick the right lines down the obstacles every time. My daughter is a much more experienced rider than I, but she's also 13 and full of nerves. She was riding our best mule, my mule, Betsy. And old Betsy took care of her the whole way down. I was so proud as a dad, my daughter was a nervous wreck when we started down the trail, but she rode it out and here we were, in the solitude and beauty of an area very few people ever get to see. Equally impressive is our smallest mule, Amos Moses, who packed our entire camp down that trail without issue, without drama. Rockstar.

We proceeded down the trail and into the valley of East Willow Creek without issue. The mules were glad to reach the bottom, as was I, and we begin walking out on flat earth heading downstream. The valley bottoms were full of grass, and springs emerged from the hillsides providing the crystal clear water which sustains these creeks during droughts like the one we are in. It was only 16:30 or so, but these canyons run north to south, and the sun sets early down in the bottom. We planned to high line the animals for the night, but trees were scarce, likely due to a wild fire about 15 years ago. We continue downstream another couple of miles, until I decided to double-back a half mile or so to a patch of trees we had already passed.

We arrive at our camp and dismount, happy to feel my knees straight again. Maggie holds onto the animals leads while I remove the panniers from Amos Moses. The mules graze on the grasses, happy to be finished riding for the day. I rig the high line while Maggie keeps hold on the mules. Then, with a sudden tug, the rockstar Amos Moses tests Maggie's grip, and he won. As I am tightening the high line, I hear the all too familiar shriek of a 13 year old girl in full panic, "DAD!". I look up, and there goes Amos Moses, our rockstar, running down the valley. Ugh... Prioritize and execute....I finish rigging the high line, grab the other two mules from Maggie and get them tied up. Amos Moses has wandered a few hundred yards away and is feeding on grass. I walk down to retrieve him with some treats, and he runs off. Bah, little sh!t is going to play catch me if you can, and I can't. Well, I guess we will see how attached he is to his herd. The other two are tied off and have no interest in leaving. I message the wife over in reach to see if she's got any ideas, and she simply states "don't lose my mule". Yes dear.

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Luck is upon us again, I had removed the panniers first. So, we have our tent and sleeping bags, thank goodness. It could have been a chilly night otherwise. We get camp set and water the mules. Amos Moses follows us down to the creek, but he's not dumb, and he stays a foot out of reach the entire time. I give up on catching him, pretty confident that he's not going to leave his fellow mules in an unknown place.

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We get a restless nights sleep. I get up every few hours just to see where Amos Moses has wandered off to, in the event that we need to get a search party going in the morning. It's dark in that canyon, and through the night he comes back into camp and never wanders more than a hundred feet or so from the other two mules.

Daylight takes a long time to arrive that evening. When it does, Amos Moses is still a few hundred feet from camp. But the little sh!t still refuses to be caught. Ok, time to retool again. Scouting trip is over, I need to get all 3 mules back to the truck. I'm able to re-rig the panniers to fit on Betsy's riding saddle. It's not pretty, but it will work. We break camp, pull the high line, and get Betsy and Otis saddled and loaded. We begin the 6 mile walk back to the truck and trailer, and Amos Moses begins heading out with us. Perfect. Well, not really, but it will work.

We work our way up the valley, leading the two mules while Amos Moses continues to play hard to get. His neck has to hurt, he's still got a pack saddle and halter on, and he keeps stepping on the lead and jerking his head to a stop. Fortunately, he's not running, so he should be OK. We get to the trail leading up and out, and begin the climb. Slow and steady, we have all day to get to the truck. About 1/4 of the way up we take a break. The trail is shelved in pretty good, so Maggie and I rest on the uphill side. Otis and Betsy slowly walk forward feeding on trail side grass while we sit. Next thing you know, Amos Moses is face to face with Maggie. She pets his nose and gently takes the lead. Holy smokes Mags, you got him!

We tie the animals off to some trees and re-rig them again. We mount and ride out, just as we rode in, and arrive back at the truck with no additional drama or excitement.

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marksjeep

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Grand Jct, CO
October seems to creep up slowly, an then without any fanfare, it's here. Bison scouting and preparations take a brief back seat. Some points had been burned in Colorado on pronghorn tags with some great friends from the front range. Off to southern Colorado we go. As years go by, and kids and family life demand more time, the three of us try to pencil in one hunt every now and again just to have fun. It's not easy with schedules, but it you don't make it a priority it will never happen.

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The pronghorn hunt did not take too long, which allowed me to resume preparing for bison. At this point, I'm still unsure of two significant items in my plan. Which animals am I taking, and who is going with me? I've got about 2 weeks to get this dialed in and the unknowns are starting to weigh on me a bit. Where did the summer go? Why didn't I make more time to prepare?

When I returned home from the pronghorn hunt, I spent some time with the animals and used the pronghorn head and quarters to reintroduce them to the sights and smells of dead critters. Mules are curious by nature, and Otis came right over to see what was in the game bags. A few sniffs later, and he was licking the head. While a little bit odd, I'll take that reaction all day long. Betsy, always a little more shy than Otis, gave a few snorts and settled in. Diva, my daughters quarter horse, reacted as expected as well. She took a look and a sniff, determined that the pronghorn parts were not hay, and thereafter ignored them. Diva is the leader of our little herd, and her demeanor can help set the mood for the others. When she is calm, they are calm. And she's usually calm, so this was a good thing. Her motivating factor in life is food, plain and simple. Beyond that, nothing seems to phase her much. Last to check things out is Amos Moses. He walks over, sees the pronghorn skull, and proceeds to lose his mind. The little mule about takes out the corral panels trying to run away. Eyes bulging, ears pinned back, snorting and pawing at the ground, it's pretty clear that he is not enjoying this at all. I had been able to do this same exercise with the first three animals last fall, when I had harvested a buck mule deer. But we had not yet acquired Amos Moses, so his reaction to animal parts was unknown and the opportunity to introduce him to parts only happens when I harvest a critter.

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Given the little mule's reaction to the pronghorn in addition to his attitude problem in the canyon, and the juxtaposed calmness that Diva seems to impart on the others, the decision is made to kick Amos Moses off the team and bring in Diva. The rockstar packer is out and we're on to plan B. I'm still going to ride Otis, as he and I have been working together all summer and I've gotten to know him pretty well. Betsy is my go-to packer, having spent the bulk of her life on a pack string for Uncle Sam. Diva will pack too, which she has done before, albeit many years ago for a previous owner. Tack is re-fitted, and some short rides around the property are used to verify fitting and get her used to the panniers again.

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Livestock team selected - check. Next item, people. This tag is good for 10 days and I am able to take the time off for the hunt. But, the remoteness and logistics of getting in and out of the roadless area really limit who can come along on the hunt. One of my buddies is a no-go from the start, he's got tags in his pocket for overlapping seasons. My other buddy can get over from the front range for a few days, but no way to take 10 days off and be in the hunt for the duration. The logistics make this one difficult. You can't just drive to camp and help out for a few days.

Over the summer, I had talked to one of my wife's coworkers who hunts, packs, and had been applying for bison for years. He had surgery on a shoulder last spring, and would not know until the last minute if he could make the trip. But, he wanted to go and he was recently retired, so time was available if he had a green light from the doc. The shoulder healed well, and about a week out from the hunt, Jim let me know he was in for at least the first 4 or 5 days. Phew, I was starting to think this was going to be me, two mules, and a horse in the back country for a few weeks. Jim asked if his brother Jeff could come along as well. They have both hunted western Colorado from childhood, and this was a chance to get in somewhere new and unique. "Absolutely!" I said. The had their own horses to ride and pack, and could get in and out of the roadless area. Perfect.

With Jim and Jeff penciled in, I settled down a little bit. Things were coming together and we had a plan. My one buddy that could make it over for a few days, would have to hike in and find us via in reach. We decided to hold off, he would come over and help if we ran into trouble.
 

marksjeep

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679
Location
Grand Jct, CO
Jim, Jeff and I meet up at a rest area in western Colorado for the drive into Utah. We head west, then north, with the final plan to begin the hunt on the south/west side of the unit where my wife and I scouted earlier in the year. My daughter and I had our scouting trip cut short, but in the miles we rode, we saw no fresh sign of bison on that side of the unit. Once you commit to an access on this unit, you're committed. Pulling out and going in from the other access will burn at least a day, perhaps two. Weighing in on the decision are the roads. The road to the southern access is an in and out, there is no alternate way off the bookcliffs. It begins as a old paved/dirt road, then turns into a dirt path cut into a creek bed, rising steeply and switchbacking up a ridge. Hauling loaded horse trailers down this road in bad weather is a no-go. If the weather moves in while we are up there, we will have to wait for the road to dry out or freeze up. The northern access has an alternate way out, north to Vernal on a paved road. But, with no sign in that area, we elect to go in the southern side of the unit.

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We arrive at the trailhead and are among about a dozen other rigs. Some folks are hunting deer, some are hunting bison. We chat with the outfitter parked next to us, they've been in here hunting already a few times this year and have seen lots of bison. We get the animals tacked up and loaded. They are weighed down with enough gear and food to sustain us for 10 days or so. Tent, sleeping bags, food, grains for the animals. Packed up and cinched down, time to hit the trail.

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Wheels-up, I've been looking forward to this for a long time. The nerves are calm now, we're on our way. There's a gate to go around to pass from the trailhead area onto Ute Tribal lands, which you cross for a mile or so before entering the unit. The trail goes around the gate and down about a 3 foot rock outcrop. As we approach the rock, Diva (on lead behind me) decides that she should be in front, and jumps past Otis as we're working our way down the outcrop. Poor Betsy is tied up behind Diva and has no interest in following the crazy horse off the front of the rock. She puts the brakes on hard. The break-away tied into the lead line between them snaps loudly, sending the once calm horse into a bucking frenzy. We've got a rodeo and we're barely past the trailhead. The horse manages to buck around for the next 30 seconds or so, kicking off the load and becoming hopelessly entangled in the lash rope. Betsy, having been drug 1/2 way off the rock, falls down and lays perfectly still, waiting patiently for someone to help get the load off so she can stand up. Jim and Jeff tie up their horses, I tie up Otis, and we get these two untacked and calmed down. Needless to say, the nerves might be back a little bit. Neither animal is hurt and the tack is sound, although one pannier took some pretty bad rips in the process. It'll hold and get us in there and we have some extra saddle panniers packed just in case. Re-rigged and loaded out again, we start over and head on in.

We proceed down the main trail about 3 or 4 miles, then head down a side trail into the canyon bottom. The side trail works it's way around Ute Tribal lands, keeping you well within the boundaries of the Little Creek Roadless unit. About 1/2 way down, we hit some steep rocks and switchbacks. Everyone does well, thank goodness. A few hundred yards later, off to our 10 O'clock.....bison. 200 yards off in the brush, a lone young bull by the looks of it. Jim and Jeff are as excited as I am. We continue down the trail and puke out into the valley bottom. It's all grass and low sage, we are out of the oak brush. Otis goes on full alert, ears pegged forward listening for the faintest sound, and there about 300 yards out walking in the sage are two mature bull bison! They turn and look at us, and slowly just walk off across the valley and into the timber on the far side. The mules and horses do OK, they don't love it but all of them have worked with cattle, so they are somewhat used to being around other large animals. We talk about camping right here or going further down the valley, and we decide to go in another mile or so.

I get off of Otis and decide to just walk him for a bit. The rifle scabbard has been forcing my knee into some bizarre angle and I need to walk it out. Jim and Jeff walk as well, knees happy to be off the steep descent and walking on pretty flat ground. We walk about a mile down the valley and find a few good spots for camp. As we round a small knoll, blind what's on the other side, I walk into about 15 bison, 30 yards away. They are as surprised as I am, and Otis is even more surprised. The bison begin to approach us, obviously unafraid of people, mules, or horses. We double-back quickly, hoping to avoid another rodeo, and get back around the knoll. Out of sight.. out of mind.. From a few hundred yards back, we watch the group of bison work their way down the valley a bit. Never spooked, just walking off doing bison things. Cows....the group was mainly cows. We'll camp here.

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The sky was dark in the valley that night. The stars were something to behold, with shooting stars and satellites seen flying overhead frequently. 0530 came quickly, and we got up, fed the animals, and made some coffee. We decided to just hunt from camp on foot, no need to use the animals to hunt. We'd take the high ground and side-hill our way around the knoll, hopefully staying out of sight and smell of any bison below. We got above the knoll and peered out in the gaining light, there were animals out in the valley bottom. 3 Cattle. Some wild cattle work their way through here, as do horses from time to time.

We worked our way down and across the small side valley where the bison were at yesterday, sign everywhere. Glassing the valley bottom below, some bison are spotted. They're about 1/2 mile away working up a side ridge. Let's go. We head back up the ridge a few hundred feet, and continue the side-hill our way down the valley. We get about 1/4 mile down the valley, and directly below us I catch movement going the opposite way. Bison, about the same size group as yesterday, and heading right back were we just came from. I get the pack off and the rifle up, they're moving too quickly to get a shot through the trees. Jeff and I double back quickly, and get set up on an outcrop overlooking the small side valley we had just come across. Rifle on the bipod, round in the chamber, I'm oddly calm. The group walks out slowly, directly in front of us. We take our time and determine the lead animal is absolutely a cow. Narrow face, narrow horns, no male parts. We need to be sure, no do-overs on this. 110%, yep, it's a cow. She walks out very slowly from right to left, quartering away at about 150 yards. I send one, bang...smack. I don't see the 300WM hit. Jeff thinks it's a little back. The group of bison spins around and I keep good eyes on the girl. I send another and see dirt fly just over her back. Calm down, slow down, we've got a hit with one in her and they're not blowing up yet. She moves out a little bit, maybe 180 yards from us, stops and turns directly away. No shot, none. The herd of bison begin to slowly move off. Obviously hurt, the cow doesn't move. She stands perfectly still for what seems like an eternity. Finally, a step to the left. Bang....smack. I see the hit, Jeff sees the hit. It's solid. But, the cow explodes and runs off across the valley. As she runs, I can see blood in the air as she breathes. She runs out to about 300 yards and turns back towards us. Bang....smack. Cow down.

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We're all in awe at the size, beauty, and toughness of the bison. All this work, all this effort, and we closed the deal early in the day on the opening morning. We could not have asked for more. Perfect. Absolutely perfect. The weather is outstanding, cool and slightly windy, which will let the meat cool off overnight. I safe the rifle, notch the tag, send a few in reach messages, and we proceed to work. She's hanging to cool by 13:00.

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As we relax in camp that afternoon, we see groups of bison on the far hills. Some come and go in the valley. What a special place to spend some time. The next day is spent packing the meat, hide, and head back to the truck. We could have shoved camp into the saddle panniers and walked out, but we decided on one more night in the back country to enjoy this area. As we load the meat and such onto the animals, not so much as a snort.

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All is well here. We pack them back and forth and enjoy one more night under the stars. Camp is packed out the following day, and we head down the switchbacked road back out into the desert. The next few days are spent cutting up and packaging meat. The freezer is full again.

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I warned you it was kinda long.... But when I realized how difficult it was to find information on the unit, how remote the area is, and how rare this opportunity is, I wanted to share the story. Hope you enjoyed it and thanks for the words of encouragement along the way. And thanks to my wife, Jim and Jeff, and everyone else that helped me with this adventure.

Stay safe, and good hunting.

Mark
 

TC207

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Awesome story and great hunt! Nice job doing the work to get your team (and self) together and strong prior to the hunt. I cant wait to have some horses and mules to work with. Some day!
 
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