More Colorado hunters say meat is the real prize

Crystal Egli grew up with a hippie father who served her lots of tofu.

Egli now eats meat, but not in the way you devour Fruity Pebbles because sugary cereal was forbidden as a kid. She can go months without it. Yet, seeing a freezer full of turkey meat after her first harvest as a hunter changed her life.

“I was so proud of that, but it was a humbling pride,” said Egli, a video producer for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “I can hunt for food and feed my family.”

While hunting magazines tend to glorify imperial bull elk scoring upward of 375 points, more hunters than you might guess from all those magazine covers are in it for the meat, not the antlers. And that may be more true now than ever, with the coronavirus circling around and causing meat shortages at times.

Paul Patton from Colorado Springs, 45, hunts with his two adult kids and wife. All four of them put in for more antelope, deer and elk tags this year.

“We had a barbecue yesterday, and my neighbor hasn’t hunted in 10 years but was all about our conversations, and we invited him to our elk camp this year,” Patton said. “I’m sure he is not the only one wanting to make a comeback for food in the freezer in case of COVID 2021.”

Scott Moore hunts for the experience, and he sells memories of them with his business, Mountain Man Taxidermy in Craig. But he’s aware of many hunters who treasure the meat more than ever.

“I think that might be a real trend,” Moore said. “I think this year may increase it even more.”

Moore refers to a trend that started less than a decade ago of comparatively younger hunters who value game meat as a way to fill their freezer without supporting what they consider environmentally troubling feedlots that provide much of our meat. Many also plant their own gardens and may raise chickens, and won’t eat meat unless they harvest it themselves.

Andre Egli, Crystal’s husband and a hunter education coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said that organic meat trend has led to an increase in hunter numbers in the last few years, although participation is still on the decline over decades.

“I do know that hunter education is growing because of that,” he said. “You can tell in class because they’re asking questions about sustainability and environmental issues.”

That desire for meat appears to be pushing hunters to set aside their fears, adjust their travel plans and travel to Craig to harvest its famous elk herd, said Pat Grieve, owner of Snake River Outfitters.

“Hunters have the ability to feed themselves,” he said. “A lot are saying to me that they don’t want to miss this. They’re the ones who don’t like going to the store and paying $70 for a roast and not knowing where it’s coming from.”

It’s not just for the environmental reasons either. Tony Gross of Littleton has hunted for 50 years, and the love of wild meat is his main motivator.

“While I love a good trophy, I subscribe to Steve Renella’s mantra: ‘Don’t pass up on the first day that you would love to have on the last,’ ” Gross said. “Honestly, I am not good enough a hunter to stay in meat all the time, but it is a combo of love of the wild and free space that keeps up my very expensive habit.”

Gross warns those who may think hunting is a simple, cheap way to get meat. There’s a low success rate and a significant investment in time and money to get educated, and to buy licenses and the necessary equipment, including weapons, packs and camping gear. He also lists freezers to preserve the meat as an expense.

“My wild game meat probably costs hundreds of dollars per pound, considering,” Gross said. “Those that are thinking they can get a rifle and drive up to the woods and shoot an elk are in for a huge surprise.”

A qualified guide can make it easier, although they cost money too. Josh Wombolt of Avalanche Outfitters in Redstone tends to help clients find meat, rather than a big trophy.

“The meat is the priority for a lot of clients anyway,” Wombolt said. “The first legal animal is what I’m going for. A lot of my guys are from out East, and they can shoot 10 whitetails a year, but they taste that elk meat, and there you go. The elk meat is a cherished thing in my own household.”

The meat means more, and that’s a big reason why Crystal Egli turned to hunting after taking CPW’s hunter education course just to learn more about the sport. She didn’t think she would, but the class, and her fellow CPW employees, chipped away at her pre-conceived notions about it. She was shocked, for instance, to learn that hunters spent hours learning and practicing ethics.

“I was surprised at how many hunters said they cried the first time they take a life,” Crystal said. “I was surprised at how many of them only eat meat they harvest themselves. So many of them do that.”

Crystal found the sport also had a positive impact on her lifelong struggle with ADHD. Hunting gives her the ability to get distracted with a purpose.

“When I go hunting, I’m noticing wind movement, a leaf, the rustle of a branch, whatever. And when I hunt, that all has a purpose and an outlet,” she said. “I could finally use all that and be good at something.”

She feels something about the meat she eats now, and she welcomes that.

“I don’t give a rip about where the meat in the store comes from, but when I saw that turkey meat in my freezer, I cared so much about it,” she said. “I would much prefer to feel something about my meat than nothing.”

READ MORE: Hunters keep two longtime Craig meat processors busy