'Hunt of a Lifetime' Possible Through Conservation Partnership

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Bobby Ossola alternately sat, kneeled and stood in the rain and wind, at sunrise and sunset, taking dozens of practice shots, his hunting rifle propped on a shooting stick to steady his aim. He reviewed hunting guidelines repeatedly with his uncle and dad, seasoned sportsmen and his mentors. Somehow, he slogged through schoolwork and hunting lessons even as his father struggled with hereditary heart problems.

Then, on a southern Colorado fall day, the Trinidad High School sophomore heard a loud bugle and glanced into a forest where he spotted a large wapiti poised between two trees. He aimed, fired and took his trophy from 200 yards. On Sept. 30, he became the first young hunter to bag a bull elk on the South Valley Ranch, a stunning parcel of land nestled between the Culebra Mountains and the Bosque del Oso State Wildlife Area.

“My dad’s always done it, and now I am,” Ossola said of his affinity for elk hunting, which allures him and draws him in. “It’s just looking for them. If you see them and you stalk up on them and try to get them. It’s just the thrill.”

The teen’s hunting expedition was made possible through a conservation easement agreement brokered between a generous landowner, the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW), Great Outdoors Colorado, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The agreement will enable the DOW to conserve 3,600 acres of prime elk habitat and oversee managed youth hunting opportunities. Each year, one youth license will be drawn so someone between the ages of 12-15 can hunt on the private ranch, home to one of the state’s largest elk herds and a coveted hunting spot.

Wildlife officials said the arrangement would provide Colorado youths with once-in-a-lifetime hunting opportunities in a prime elk habitat.

“It’s the recruitment of youth for the future and encouraging participation by some of our younger hunters out there. In this case, we were really striving to create a rare and unique experience,” said Al Trujillo, a DOW area wildlife manager in Pueblo. “Through Colorado’s preference point system, these kids would be in their 30s or 40s before they ever drew a similar license. Credit should go to the landowner who embraced this idea and helped to create a special opportunity for kids.”

DOW Director Russell George said the South Valley Ranch agreement fits in well with the state agency’s long-term habitat conservation goals.

“The conservation of wildlife habitats is among the Division’s top priorities. Thanks to generous landowners and groups such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, we are making progress on that front,” George said. “This agreement will help us preserve an important elk habitat in southern Colorado and provide a new generation of young sportsmen and women with a high-quality hunting experience.”

The mission of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is to ensure the future of elk, other wildlife and their habitats. The 20-year-old Missoula, Mont.-based land trust and conservation group has worked extensively with the DOW to improve and protect wildlife habitats around Colorado. Projects have included fire and weed control, water treatment, and fence construction and removal.

Doug Robinson, the foundation’s Golden-based lands program manager, said the conservation easement was a major achievement for those who work to preserve wildlife habitats and for the animals that will benefit from it.

“It’s a big coup because it’s in the Upper Purgatory, which is an important region for us. There’s a handful of owners who own large parcels of land,” Robinson said. “This particular property was kind of the keystone to protecting winter range, and serves as a catalyst for other land protection efforts in that country.”

At 15, Ossola already has proven himself a capable outdoorsman like his father, a lifelong hunter and angler. The teen prepared for his big-game hunt by practicing under the guidance of his uncle, Michael, and his dad, Robert Ossola, 45, who suffered five heart attacks last summer and fall, the most recent and severe on Nov. 15. After Ossola drew this year’s youth hunting license, he and his father met with District Wildlife Manager Bob Holder of Trinidad as well as the landowner to get to know one another and go over hunting guidelines together.

The elder Ossola said he is proud his son can identify nearly every animal he encounters in the backwoods west of Trinidad and can hunt and fish alongside veteran sportsmen. He and his son have formed a powerful bond by hiking, fishing, and hunting in and around the Sangre de Cristo Mountains since Bobby was a baby, he added.

“I have a hard time out-fishing him. There’s something about this kid. He out-shot me this year on doves. He’s just a lucky kid, I tell you,” Robert Ossola said. “He’s a heck of a hunter.”

Trujillo said some observers criticized the DOW for issuing a youth license instead of allowing others to hunt on the property. But after reading a letter the younger Ossola sent to the DOW, “I’m absolutely convinced we did the right thing,” he said. “It’s pretty special that Bobby can participate with his dad in something like this.”

For Bobby Ossola, the experience already has had some big payoffs. He bagged a trophy elk and bonded with his father. Now all he has to do is find someone to help him move a large head mount into his bedroom. Doctors have banned his father from moving or lifting heavy objects. The teenager also wants to get through his Spanish, algebra and biology classes so he can graduate and prepare for a law-enforcement career. To practice his writing skills, he recently sent a letter to wildlife officials to thank them for his South Valley Ranch hunting experience.

“Thanks for the hunt of a lifetime,” the teen signed off.