By Mark Heinz, outdoors reporter
Joshua Sunberg said he had to live every hunter’s worst nightmare as he watched a bull elk he’d shot in Wyoming on Monday slowly die.
“He was sitting there wounded, suffering,” Sunberg, of Iowa, told Cowboy State Daily on Tuesday. “I couldn’t shoot him again, because that would have made me a poacher.”
To make matters worse, he crashed his truck earlier during his trip to Wyoming.
“This is the worst hunt of my life,” Sunberg said.
It took the bull, which was 20 yards inside private ranch property, about two hours to die, he said. But Sunberg couldn’t get permission to go onto the property, finish the bull off and retrieve it.
Sunberg frequently hunts in Wyoming and other Western states. He declined to identify the rancher who denied him permission or the exact location in Southeast Wyoming where he shot the bull.
“I was on the phone with (the rancher) while the bull was suffering,” Sunberg said. “And the rancher said it was my fault, that I’m a terrible hunter.”
“I asked if he could come put it down, and he said ‘no’ because he didn’t have an elk tag.” Sunberg said. “So, I asked if he could at least have the highway patrol or somebody else come put it down, but he said ‘no.’”
Hunt Started Normally
Sunberg was raised in Iowa, but has a cousin in Cheyenne and relatives in Colorado. He learned to hunt at a young age and started hunting in the West as a teenager. He attended the University of Wyoming and worked for game agencies in Montana and Colorado. He now works as a wildlife researcher for Southern Illinois University and also guides hunters in the Midwest.
His latest Wyoming venture began as an archery elk hunt Sept. 18. Rifle season opened in his hunt area Oct. 1.
He was hunting in open sagebrush country on public land parcels interspersed with private property. He said he’d passed up chances at some smaller bull elk early on in his hunt. He was determined that Monday would be his day.
“That morning I decided I wanted to kill a bull, and a I wanted to kill a good one,” he said. “So, I ended up working my ass off, hiking 16 miles across these parcels of public land.”
He finally spotted a herd of about 85-90 elk on some private land. So, he set up nearby on the hope that the elk might cross over onto the public ground.
The Bull He’d Been Waiting For
Sunberg said he set up about 200 yards off the ranch property line.
“I try to always sit at least 100 yards back from the property lines, just out of respect for the ranchers,” he said.
The elk finally started crossing onto the public land, and Sunberg said he spotted a huge “6-by-7” point bull. He got a clean shot from about 120 yards.
“I’m shooting a .28 Nosler,” he said. “The bullet blew though both shoulders and both lungs. But what happened was, my bullet was blowing through so fast because the shot was close, it just made a tiny hole.”
The bull made it about 20 yards back onto the private ranch property before it couldn’t move any farther, he said.
Trespassing wasn’t an option he’d consider.
“I’m a legal beagle. I do everything by the letter of the law,” Sunberg said. “A million people would have just dragged that bull back over. But I can’t do that because I’d lose my job, and I love my job.”
Sunberg said he called a Wyoming Game and Fish Department warden, but was told he’d be better off just saving his tag for another bull. He didn’t want to do that.
“I have a cow elk tag I still need to fill while I’m here,” he said, but he considers his bull hunt to be over.
No Other Option
In the Midwest, some states allow hunters to cross onto private land to pursue hit game, even without a landowner’s permission, Sunberg said.
That’s not the case here, said Wyoming Game and Fish Department spokesperson Sara DiRienzo in an email to Cowboy State Daily.
“Hunters can only retrieve game on private land with the landowner’s permission,” she said. “Game and Fish can help in certain instances seek permission, but we respect the rights of private landowners, and that is truly up to them to grant access.”
Hunters also are required to make every reasonable effort to track down game animals they wound, she said.
“Hunters are required to notch their carcass coupon at the site of the kill, so if they can’t retrieve the game, the license remains unfilled,” she said.
Regarding Sunberg’s incident, “Game and Fish can verify we spoke with the hunter and provided him with the same information on game retrieval on private property,” DiRienzo said.
Sunberg said he understands why Wyoming landowners want to control access to their property.
“I get it. It’s private property and they want to protect the integrity of that private property,” he said. “They don’t want people shooting stuff and then running after it all over their land.”
‘The Worst Hunt Of My Life’
A few days before his predicament with the bull elk, Sunberg was scouting in another hunt area for a friend,= and ended up flipping his truck on loose, wet gravel.
“I started to slide, and I had the option of going through a rancher’s fence or trying to correct and risk flipping the truck,” he said. “So, I tried to correct, and ended up flipping the truck onto its side.”
The truck suffered some cosmetic damage, and the engine “hydro-locked,” Sunberg said.
He rode with friends while his truck sat in a dealership shop as he tried to untangle red tape with his insurance company.
Wyoming Not Hospitable
Sunberg said that, in his experience at least, Wyoming isn’t a friendly place for out-of-state hunters.
“In all the time I’ve hunted here, I’ve only had a resident help me out once,” he said. “When I crashed my truck, it happened to be other people from Iowa who ended up helping me.”
He said he’s also had ranchers “come out and scream at me” even when he was clearly on public land.
Even so, he said he still loves the Wyoming outdoors and wants to continue hunting here, but the loss of the bull will haunt him.
“The ecosystem side of me looks at this way – it (the bull’s carcass) will feed the ravens, it will feed the coyotes and foxes, it will even feed the mice with the bones,” he said. “But the sad thing is, it will never be used for a barbeque for friends and family.”