On March 13, a massive winter storm called a “bomb cyclone” hit the Front Range and eastern plains of Colorado.
By mid-morning the blizzard was producing “white out” conditions throughout Teller County and in the Colorado Springs area, where wind gusts reached 96 mph. Among the worst-hit areas were Black Forest and the east side of Colorado Springs.
It seemed to me like a good day to stay home and work on paperwork. Most people don’t know it, but there is actually a lot of paperwork that goes with being a wildlife officer. There are case reports to write after I have issued a citation, reports on wildlife calls and incidents, poaching investigations and much more. I won’t bore you with the details.
Anyway, my day was coming to a close and I was having dinner with my family around 6:30 p.m. when my phone rang. (It always seems to ring at dinner time.) However, this was not the typical deer or bear call I usually get at that time of day.
The call was from a fellow wildlife officer who was checking to see if anyone was available to help rescue stranded motorists due to the blizzard. El Paso County Search and Rescue had called our agency asking for assistance. They reported approximately 1,200 people were stranded in their cars.
I quickly finished dinner and began to prep my truck for what I might need that night. I made sure I had plenty of cold-weather gear in the event I as making rescues in my truck, in a Sno-Cat or on a snowmobile. I grabbed food and water, told my family goodnight and headed down the pass.
The road down to Colorado Springs was not bad. It was mostly wet with a little snow. When I got to the bottom of the hill the road was actually dry. I was scratching my head wondering just how bad this bomb cyclone could be. It quickly became apparent that the weather conditions to the north and east were much worse.
I linked up with my supervisor and we headed out in our trucks before our agency’s Sno-Cats arrived from Trinidad and Salida. We went to the Black Forest area where a fellow CPW officer had been working for hours helping local fire departments reach stranded citizens.
From Woodmen Road to Denver, Interstate 25 was closed and as we drove east on Woodmen, the worse the road conditions got. The landscape took on an eerie feel as we turned north onto Black Forest Road.
Abandoned vehicles littered the snow-packed road. Some were on the shoulder but most were abandoned in the middle of the road. The pavement was a sheet of ice with a little bit of snow pack. In some areas there were 3- to 4-foot snow drifts, usually around the abandoned vehicles.
Conditions deteriorated as we drove north. We even passed an abandoned snow plow and a fire truck. That’s when I knew things were bad.
Around 1 a.m., we linked up with our fellow wildlife officer and a unit from a local fire department and went about rescuing stranded motorists. About that time our two Sno-Cats had arrived and were deployed on rescue missions.
At 3 a.m., conditions were so bad we were afraid our pickup trucks would end up like the abandoned snow plow and fire truck. So we called it a night and left the rescue work to our CPW colleagues in the Sno-Cats. I headed home to get some sleep and prep for the next shift.
Over the next 24 hours, CPW staff rotated shifts in the Sno-Cats and rescued many more stranded motorists.
As a wildlife officer, you never know what your day may hold. Sure, we enforce hunting and fishing regulations, catch poachers, educate the public about wildlife, rescue injured animals among our duties. (And we fill out a lot of paperwork!)
But protecting human health and safety is our highest priority. We are first responders who answer the call if there is a fugitive on loose, a wildfire threatening a community, a flash flood, tornado or other natural disasters, like a bomb cyclone, that puts people in harm’s way.
So, if you ever see my truck parked in my driveway at noon, please know I may have been up all night hunting an escaped wolf, or rescuing and releasing a wayward moose, or conducting surveillance to catch a poacher or even rescuing stranded motorists from snow drifts.
As always, if you have any questions, concerns, or want more advice on avoiding wildlife conflicts, please give me a call at 227-5281.
Tim Kroening graduated from Colorado State University with a degree in wildlife biology. He works as a District Wildlife Manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Teller County. With general questions about Colorado Parks and Wildlife, contact Tim at 227-5281.