Colorado wildlife officer Jared Lamb was counting bighorn sheep and mountain goats in the Rocky Mountains one day in July 2019 when he spotted something weird among a herd of elk – one had a tire around its neck.
Little did Lamb know, his sighting was the start of a search that would last more than two years. Over that time, wildlife officials confirmed numerous sightings of the bull elk and tried several times to tranquilize it, all efforts at freeing it from its rubber-and-steel yoke.
Through it all, the elk eluded them and the tire remained.
That is, until Saturday, when Colorado wildlife officers finally shot it with a tranquilizer gun, sawed off its antlers and removed the tire that had been around its neck for roughly half its life, Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials said in a statement. Those officials estimated the bull is 4½ years old and weighs more than 600 pounds.
After Lamb’s initial sighting, a trail camera near Conifer – a small unincorporated community 20 miles southwest of Denver – captured the tire bull twice in 2020, first on June 5 and then on July 12. Another trail camera picked it up on Aug. 12. But the tire elk disappeared for long periods of time, especially in winter.
“This elk is definitely acting like a wild elk and not wanting to be seen, which is good. That’s what we want our wildlife to be doing,” Colorado Parks and Wildlife officer Scott Murdoch said in an August 2020 video in which he called on people to report any sightings.
“We definitely want to track this elk down,” he said.
Wildlife officials picked up the scent again in the spring. In May and June, they tried and failed four times to catch up with the tire-yoked bull in Conifer, officials said in the statement. Sightings picked back up months later in September and early October near the town of Pine, several miles to the south. The odds of getting close to wild bull elk get higher during mating season, which spans from mid-September to mid-October in Colorado, as their inhibitions lower.
Over the past week, wildlife officials homed in, trying three times to tranquilize the bull without success. Then, on Saturday, a resident reported a sighting near Pine Junction, several miles away from Conifer. Wildlife officers went to the area and found their target among a group of about 40 other elk. Dawson Swanson, a wildlife officer, maneuvered into a spot where he thought the bull would cross. He got within range a few times, but other elk or tree branches blocked a shot at the tire elk.
In the 2020 video, Murdoch said a shooter has to be 20 to 40 yards away to tranquilize an animal, and when dealing with one that’s skittish, it can be a challenge to get within even hundreds of yards before they notice and escape.
Swanson echoed that sentiment when describing what happened Saturday.
“Tranquilizer equipment is a relatively short-range tool and given the number of other elk moving together . . . you really need to have things go in your favor to have a shot or opportunity pan out,” Swanson said.
Finally, things went his way. Swanson sank a dart in the tire bull. Once he did, the herd fled to the trees, and Swanson found his quarry once he tracked the animals there. He called Murdoch for backup. The pair wanted to leave the bull’s five-point antlers intact for mating season but felt they couldn’t cut through the steel bead that ran through the tire without doing so.
“We had to just get the tire off in any way possible,” Murdoch said.
Once they had, the two were surprised by what they saw.
“The hair was rubbed off a little bit, there was one small open wound maybe the size of a nickel or quarter, but other than that it looked really good,” Murdoch said of the bull’s neck. “I was actually quite shocked to see how good it looked.”
They found about 10 pounds of wet pine needles, dirt and other debris in the bottom half of the tire and estimated the elk was about 35 pounds lighter once it and its antlers were removed.
The tire bull saga demonstrates the need for owners to clean up their properties to get rid of anything in which wildlife could get trapped, officials said. Murdoch said he has seen elk get stuck in swing sets, basketball hoops, tomato cages, hammocks and trash can lids.
“You name it,” he said.
As for the tire elk, Murdoch said in the 2020 video that the tire would have gotten stuck around its neck when it was young, before it could grow antlers, or during the winter after he’d shed them. It might have come across a big stack of tires or eaten out of one that someone had fashioned into a makeshift feeder.
“It’s anybody’s guess how it actually got on there.”
Video link: https://wapo.st/2YIAc3i