NEDERLAND — Boulder County open space officials found Caribou Ranch irresistible, so they snatched up the sprawling mountain property for $15 million in 1996.
The 2,640-acre park — which opened to the public last fall and boasts open meadows, aspen groves and a smattering of wetlands — also is irresistible to dozens of elk that spend the warmer months of the year there.
“They’re grazing animals, so they do appreciate those areas,” said Dave Hoerath, a wildlife specialist with the county Parks and Open Space Department. “If they had it to themselves, it would be wonderful for them.”
The open space department has maintained the park as a sanctuary for the elk and other wildlife, except for a few notable intrusions by hunters. In one notorious case from 1999, a Nederland man led a guided expedition onto the property and poached at least two elk before he was arrested. He later was convicted and fined.
Open space officials aren’t taking chances that that won’t happen again, especially now that the property is open to the public and growing in popularity.
Alex Havas, a 34-year-old sheriff’s deputy, became the open space department’s full-time caretaker for the property in January and is scheduled to move into a residence on the land late this year or early in 2006.
Havas will have plenty of duties as caretaker, but protecting the property — and its resident elk herd — from trespassers is high on the list.
“I’ve been picking the brains of the locals around Nederland,” Havas said. “In some hunting communities, it’s known as a fantastic place to hunt for elk. ... I’m hoping to thwart that.”
Currently, the park is quieter than usual because the open space department closed the property from April 1 through June 30 to protect elk during calving season.
Open space officials take the closure seriously. Even the department’s biologists aren’t allowed on the property during the closure unless they have specific business there.
Havas may be the only human on the property for days at a time, making his rounds on and off marked trails to look for trespassers.
“The poaching, if and when it occurs, will be on the peripheries of the property, which is why I’m constantly checking them,” he said, scooping snow off a tree branch and into his mouth.
But he’s not expecting a “rampant problem” with poachers. Even the most brazen hunter would think twice before hosting a safari on a public open space park, Havas said. Still, Caribou Ranch, the highest and most remote open space park in the county, abuts federal land, where “you can do virtually anything,” he continued.
Hunters have wandered onto the property in the past, not realizing they were on county open space.
“In years past, it was private. There was really nobody up here to hear a gunshot, let alone enforce the rules,” Havas said.
A crazy summer may be in store for Havas. Lightning strikes, wildfires and lost hikers will likely be more common problems than poaching, he said.
Havas’ résumé presents him as a jack-of-all-trades, with experience as a paramedic, a park ranger and a sheriff’s deputy for eight years. He’s worked on avalanche rescue teams and paid his way through college as a wildland firefighter. He studied biology at the University of Colorado and hopes to put some of that experience to use checking wildlife monitoring stations for Hoerath and other open space biologists.
On March 31, he livened up his patrol hike by leaving the trail and plunging into waist-deep snowdrifts to check on a pine marten box set by open space scientists. The department uses the boxes, made of PVC pipe and sticky paper, to track the small, mink-like animals at Caribou Ranch.
Havas’ rounds took him past the 130-year-old DeLonde Homestead site, the abandoned Blue Bird silver mine and scores of elk-chewed aspen trees. He saw no signs of trespassers during his two-hour hike.
“This is easy. You can tell if people have been here,” he said with a grin, unable to find a single human print in the snow. “When it’s dry, there are so many ways to get in.”
Sometimes, Havas doesn’t even see the herd he looks after. The animals are far more skittish than those in Rocky Mountain National Park, where elk often walk right up to tourists’ cars. While patrolling on foot, Havas spotted a pair of bulls with gnarly spring coats darting through the trees toward North Boulder Creek.
As part of his regular duties, Havas will plow roads and parking areas, fix fences and even clean latrines on occasion. And as a commissioned deputy, Havas can back up other sheriff’s deputies patrolling Nederland or Ward, if necessary.
Keeping up with chores and learning 2,000 acres of backcountry at altitudes between 8,300 and 10,000 feet could make for a hectic year, but Havas said he isn’t complaining.
“What an amazing lifestyle,” he said as he trudged past the DeLonde Homestead.
It was hard to tell whether he was envying the pioneers who settled the area or reflecting on his new job.
Brad Turner can be reached at 720-494-5420, or by e-mail at email@example.com.