During his first-ever elk hunt Sunday, Patrick Sullivan found himself in an ethical and legal quandary as he watched an elk that had been shot poorly by another hunter suffer a slow, agonizing death.
“He was frantically spinning in circles. He was trying to get up and tripping over his own (partially detached) leg. It was like watching a dog that got hit by a car,” Sullivan told Cowboy State Daily. “It was hard having to watch an animal go out like that.”
Earlier that day while hunting elk in the mountains near Buffalo, Sullivan was waiting for just the right moment to pick out a cow from a herd of 200 that was about to stop in front of him, broadside, at roughly 60 yards. It should have been a slam-dunk to fill his cow elk tag.
But then another hunter opened fire into the back end of the herd while it was still moving and wounded the bull, but apparently made no effort to track it.
And that left Sullivan alone on a ridge watching the bull die, frantically bugling at the herd as it moved away from him.
New To Wyoming, But Not To Hunting
Though he is new to hunting elk, Sullivan is no stranger to hunting. He is from southern Florida and frequently hunted feral hogs and other critters there.
He’s also gone on hunts elsewhere, such as for axis deer in Hawaii. He’s trained chef and enjoys hunting, butchering and preparing meat for himself and his wife rather than buying it from the store.
Wyoming is both “blessed and cursed” to not have feral hogs, he said.
There’s been some speculation over whether feral hogs might end up in Wyoming, either from Montana, Colorado or Utah.
On one hand, they’re terribly destructive. But on the other, hogs can provide nearly boundless hunting opportunities, Sullivan said.
Though getting permission to hunt elk or deer on private land can be a challenge in Wyoming, landowners in Florida practically beg hunters to come shoot hogs, he said.
“If you would ask a farmer permission to go out into their sugarcane field and hunt hogs, they’d welcome you and give you lemonade,” he said.
Despite such perks for a hunter in the Sunshine State, Sullivan and his wife were itching to find a new home.
He’s a diesel mechanic for UPS, so when the company offered him a position in Casper last year, the Sullivans jumped at the opportunity.
“We lived though a really big hurricane in Florida last year and were wanting to move, and I’ve always been interested in the West,” Sullivan said.
Wyoming is a perfect fit because it’s socially and politically similar to rural Florida and offers endless opportunities for new outdoor adventures, he said.
Putting Elk Knowledge To The Test
As soon as he decided to move to Wyoming, Sullivan knew an elk hunt would be at the top of his list. So, he set about learning everything he could about elk and strategies for hunting them.
“When I’m trying to learn something new, I over-educate myself. I obsess about a topic, and I study it in-depth,” he said.
However, his timing was off. Hunters must live in Wyoming for a full year before they can qualify as residents. And this fall’s elk seasons came just before Sullivan had that year’s residency.
He didn’t want to pay full nonresident fees for a bull elk tag. But then a co-worker told him that there might be some over-the-counter general season cow elk tags still available in elk hunt Area 34.
So, he checked into it and decided a cow elk tag was worth the $288 fee. If nothing else, Sullivan figured it would give him the opportunity to put everything he’d learned about elk and elk hunting to a real-world test.
He left Casper at about 3 a.m. Sunday bound for a section of public land in his chosen hunt area. He thought he’d probably have a great day out hiking in Wyoming’s mountains, and perhaps get to see an elk or two.
He ended up having a day filled with some of the best thrills a hunter can hope for, and some of the lowest lows that hunters dread.
Falling Trees And Elk Calls
Sullivan had picked an area that, at the farthest point from the parking area, would take him 6 miles in. So, he knew he had to be physically and mentally prepared to possibly pack elk meat 6 miles out, if he met with success.
At the parking area, he met one other hunter. He described the other hunter as a middle-aged, quiet man who seemed well-equipped and also ready for the hunt.
There was plenty of room as they both headed off in slightly different directions.
Sullivan had been hiking about a mile or so when he started to come across fresh elk tracks, scat and other signs – indicating that a large herd was probably moving through the forest ahead of him.
As he moved on, he eventually started to hear “cow calls,” or the chirping sounds that cow elk make to communicate. He said he also heard trees fall, twice, which he admits was spooky.
He surmised the elk had probably just knocked over standing dead trees as they moved through the timber, but he didn’t know for sure.
“I was hoping it wasn’t a bear,” Sullivan said.
And when things came together, they came together quickly.
The other hunter had been tracking the same herd, off to his left. They elk apparently caught his scent and turned, heading right in Sullivan’s direction. It looked like he was going to get a shot.
He stationed himself next to a tree, got his .300 Winchester magnum ready to go, and waited for the perfect opportunity to present itself.
But that moment never came.
‘He Must Have Known I Had A Cow Tag’
The elk were funneling into a well-worn game trail, “maybe wide enough for two people on horses side-by-side,” Sullivan said.
That meant they were bunched up, and his biggest worry was that if he rushed a shot without being extremely cautious, his bullet could pass through the cow elk he intended to kill and wound — or possibly also kill — the animal behind it.
The cow elk and smaller bulls were bunched up in the main body of the herd, and some larger bulls were scattered along the edge, going at their own pace, Sullivan said.
A huge bull crossed in front of him, perhaps no more than 40 yards away, stopped, turned and saw him, Sullivan said.
“We made eye contact. He knew I was there,” he said. “And I’m pretty sure he knew that I had a cow tag, because he just looked at me, bugled once, and then kept on going.”
The thrill of that moment made the entire trip worth it, Sullivan said.
And as the herd started to slow down, indicating that it might stop directly broadside to him, he thought his day was going to get even better.
He disengaged his rifle’s safety and started looking for a viable target.
“It was basically me sitting at the supermarket waiting to pick out my cow,” Sullivan said. “They were still all stacked up together, and I didn’t want a pass-through shot to hit another animal. So, I had to find one that had a window of clear space on the other side of her.”
‘I Heard A Cannon Go Off’
But just then the other hunter opened fire.
“I heard a cannon go off to my left,” Sullivan said.
He said he spotted the other hunter, who had opened fire from a “freehand” standing position at the elk, which from his location were still moving and quartering away.
And that made for a bad shot that the hunter shouldn’t have taken, Sullivan said.
The other hunter shot again and the elk peeled off and started moving quickly downslope.
Sullivan decided to follow them. There was a chance he might get another shot opportunity. And he also figured that if the other hunter had hit an elk, he could help him track it.
As far as he knows, the other hunter made no effort to follow the herd.
‘I Watched Him Bugling After The Herd’
Sullivan was alone again and followed the herd for quite some distance. He said he heard something that sounded like a large animal tumbling down the slope and antlers striking trees, so he wondered if the other hunter had hit a bull.
At last he came to a more open area, and he could see the bulk of the herd headed out across flat country on private property past the base of the slopes. The animals all looked healthy, so Sullivan at first thought the elk had gotten away clean.
And even though all chances of him getting another shot were gone, he felt relieved.
But then he heard a bull elk frantically bugling, and it sounded close.
He shifted his position and spotted a large bull elk maybe 300 yards away. It had taken a hit high on one of its front legs, which was dangling about half blown off, Sullivan said.
It was a heartbreaking sight, and it put him in a quandary.
With the other hunter apparently nowhere around, he knew that if he shot the bull to put it out of its misery, he could be held accountable for illegally shooting a bull elk on a cow tag.
So he decided not to shoot.
“I watched the bull bugling after the herd, which was just getting farther and farther away,” Sullivan said. “And every 20 seconds or so, he would get up and try to follow. And he would just tumble, tripping over that leg that was just dangling.
“And then he gave up trying to follow, but just kept bugling and bugling at his herd. His voice started cracking. He was getting weaker. And eventually, he just died.”
Sullivan managed to get cellphone service and called his father-in-law, who is a seasoned hunter.
His father-in-law told him he’d likely made the right decision by not shooting. And he also advised Sullivan to stay away from the dying elk.
“The concern was, if I went down there and there’s a wounded bull, and I have a cow tag, and I’m still a non-resident and there’s nobody else around — that would have been a tall tale to try telling the Game and Fish,” he said.
‘A Crazy First Day Of Hunting Elk’
Sullivan made calls to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department offices in Sheridan and Buffalo and left voicemails, reporting what he’d seen.
After hiking back to his truck, he drove along a road he’d spotted from up on the slopes. That might take him close to where the bull’s carcass was.
The road came to the ranch’s locked gate with a sign that had the foreman’s phone number on it.
So, he called the number and left a voicemail for the ranch foreman, explaining that the bull elk had died either on the ranch property or right next to it.
Then he headed back home, reflecting on his day.
Sullivan had taken a Wyoming hunters’ education course when he moved here, and he recalled discussing ethical shots in class.
He’s convinced that the other hunter had gotten too eager and taken shots that weren’t ethical. Shooting at moving elk quartering away sets things up for a terrible outcome, he said.
The experience raised complicated questions about not only ethical shooting, but how to handle the ramifications of dealing with an animal that somebody else has wounded and left to suffer.
Even so, he said he’s not discouraged by a bad incident, and his image of Wyoming’s hunters isn’t tarnished by one bad actor. On his next day off, he plans to head back out into the same area, hoping for better luck.
And he’ll never forget his first elk hunt.
“It was a crazy first day of elk hunting for me, for sure. Most people don’t get stories like that their first time out. They just get a good hike,” he said.
Mark Heinz can be reached at email@example.com.