For Wyoming game warden Katelyn Hamm, April really was the cruelest month. And this year was turning out to be the worst one of all.
And that was even before she got her pickup stuck eight miles from the highway.
It was the last week of the month and she was in the middle of what was known as shed war season. Bull elk and big mule deer shed their antlers throughout the winter, and now the war was heating up due to the low snowpack and the antlers' high price.
Shed war season was why she'd been grinding her green four-wheel-drive Ford F-150 through sagebrush, snowdrifts, and rock formations in the high foothills of the western slope of the Bighorn Mountains. Gnarled ancient cedars stood as sentinels among the granite formations towering on both sides, and she'd tried to keep her front tires in a set of untracked but snowpacked ruts meandering up and through the rough country toward the mountains.
Her destination had been a set of high, vast meadows just below the tree line of the mountains. Those meadows were designated as critical elk and deer winter range, and her aerial surveys two months earlier had revealed thousands of both. The elk liked to descend by the hundreds from the shadowed low timber to feed in the open on the meadows at night where the wind swept the benches clean of snow. Hundreds of mule deer moved up from draws and arroyos to do the same thing.
Now the meadows were littered with forty-pound elk antlers and heavy-beam deer antlers, the sharp tines and tips emerging from the snow as it melted, so new they glinted in the sun.
There were two ways to get to the winter range from the highway. One was a moderately developed gravel two-track five miles to the south. That route was officially closed during the winter months and marked by signs warning against entry. But antler poachers were resourceful. They drove around the gate closure and shot up the signs.
The other way to the high meadows was the rough, obscure two-track path that Katelyn had chosen to take. It wound up through the rock formations and cedars and ended on a high promontory that would give her a sweeping view of the meadows and anyone who might be in them.
For antler hunters, the western slope was a treasure trove.
For Katelyn Hamm, it was where she got her pickup stuck.
The front wheels had dropped into a deep but narrow erosion ditch that crossed the road. She hadnÕt seen the depth of the hazard because it had been covered by a long, narrow snowdrift that started in a copse of sagebrush and extended forty feet beyond in a crusty frozen wave. The impact was hard enough when the tires dropped that a cascade of ticket books and topo maps showered down on her from where theyÕd been secured by a rubber band around the sun visor. Her chin hurt because sheÕd smacked it on the steering wheel.
It happened, getting stuck in the middle of nowhere, and it occurred more frequently than any game warden would admit. The key was to figure out how they could free their vehicles without having to call for help, or worse, being photographed. Each year, the Wyoming Game Warden Foundation dinner featured a special PowerPoint presentation of game wardens stuck in their vehicles. It elicited lots of guffaws. Katelyn wanted to be one of the laughers, not the laughees.
She tried to rock the truck forward and back, hoping the tires would grind through the snow and grab a bite of dirt that would launch her out. But the more she rocked, the deeper the tires dug in.
Katelyn struggled into her parka inside the cab and jammed a green Stormy Kromer wool cap on her head, then tucked her auburn hair into the collar of her coat so the cold winter wind wouldn't whip her eyes with it. The hem of the parka gathered over the grip of her holstered .40 Glock.
She grimaced as she circled the vehicle, and not just from the wind. The tires were deep in the ditch and the front bumper was perched on the edge of it. The friction of her spinning front tires had glazed the snow and melted it down enough that they spun freely and could grip nothing.
In the gear box in the bed of her unit, she had two shovels, one with a sharp blade and the other squared off, and she could try to start digging, but the ground was still frozen solid. It might take her hours.
She could call dispatch and request a tow truck from town, eighteen miles away, but that would take hours as well, provided the driver could even find her in such a remote location, GPS coordinates or not. And would he have a phone or camera to document her situation? Of course he would.
"Well, damn," she said to herself. The wind whipped her words away.
SheÕd heard too many times that there werenÕt actually four seasons in the Rocky Mountains, but three: summer, winter, and mud. That was true enough, though there was the possibility of snow at elevation every month of the year. What that canard didnÕt account for was that no matter what the weather, the conditions, and snowpack, she still had hard calendar dates she had to consider in order to do her job.
There was a rhythm to it. Hunting season openers started with archery in the early fall through the last rifle seasons in December. Herd classification assessments of elk, deer, and pronghorn antelope took place in December and January. Checking up on local licensed trappers in the deep winter took her through late March, and checking fishing licenses lasted all summer. Interspersed throughout were mandated reports for headquarters in Cheyenne, regional training days in Cody, and various assistance requests not only from other game wardens but from local law enforcement, state troopers, and investigators.
Shed war season had become more exciting since the price for elk antlers had gone up to around fifteen dollars per pound, and mule deer antlers up to ten to twelve dollars. That meant a set from a mature bull could fetch up to six hundred dollars from the "antler man" when he came to town. Deer antlers fetched two hundred to four hundred dollars a set and were later sold to furniture makers, accessory manufacturers, and Asian buyers who ground up the material into powder and sold it as an aphrodisiac.
In a district where oil and gas activity was slowly coming back but still not out of the bust years, antler hunting could almost make a guy rich.
"Antler season" on the winter range opened on May 1, which meant antler hunters could legally spread out over the mountains and wintering grounds en masse to scoop up whatever they could find. It would be a free-for-all, filling flatbed trailers with sheds and overflowing pickup beds.
Unfortunately, some miscreants tried to beat the legal opening day and the other antler hunters. They'd try to sneak onto the meadows as soon as the snow receded enough that they could get there and back, despite the locked gate and the posted signs. Katelyn knew it had been happening for years, and she was determined to patrol the meadows by truck and catch the poachers.
Big-game animals were weak and stressed in the winter, especially in the last months before the grass pushed through the snow and the herds dispersed on their own. Antler hunters ran them off the meadows prematurely and sometimes spooked the herds away from their winter feed. It was cruel. Katelyn supported proper hunting ethics and was outraged at needless wildlife deaths.
She studied the landscape around her and made a plan. Anything, she thought, to avoid calling for that tow truck.
A lone cedar tree twisted up from the shale about sixty feet from the front bumper of her pickup. Welded on that bumper was an electric winch with a tight spool of rusting cable and a hook on the end. She'd never used it and she hoped it worked.
The tree itself wasn't massive, but it was obvious it had been there a long time. Cedar trees didn't grow fast in Wyoming, but they had to be tough to withstand the wind, weather, and lack of rain. She'd pull out the cable, loop it around the trunk, and hope like hell that the winch motor worked and had enough torque.
Katelyn circled the tree and confirmed that it looked stout enough to serve as an anchor. Then, after a quick look around and with the wind at her back, she unbuckled her jeans and squatted to urinate. She hated going outside in the cold, but she had no choice. She'd drunk too much coffee that morning and there were no public restrooms for miles.
While she strained to finish quickly, she heard a hum in the sky. The sound was at a different frequency from the wind-lower and more steady. Then it was gone.
She rose and searched the sky while she fastened her trousers. Empty landscape and wind sometimes combined to ferry faraway sounds over long distances. There'd been times when she'd clearly heard snippets of conversations from people too far away to see.
Maybe a low-flying plane or a piece of machinery?
Katelyn chalked it up to the quirkiness of her surroundings and got back to work.
She located the remote control for the winch in a grocery bag behind the seat of her pickup and plugged it into the outlet, then toggled the switch. The spool turned, spitting the hook out from the motor so it looked like it was sticking out its tongue.
It took ten minutes for her to feed out enough cable to reach the tree. The steel line coiled in front of her pickup and stained the snow orange from powdered rust.
Pushing aside stiff branches, she looped the cable around the lower trunk near the base of the cedar and secured the hook.
She moved to the side as far as the cord to the control would allow and gently activated the winch until the cable began to tighten. That way, if the line broke, it wouldn't whip back and injure her.
Then she heard the hum again and paused. This time, it emanated from somewhere over her shoulder-from the direction of the mountains.
She turned and the remote control slipped from her hands as she saw what was coming: a ragged column of sixty to eighty mule deer pouring over the summit of the hill. They were like molten gray lava, grouped closely together and flowing down the hillside in a wild panic.
Unlike elk, deer didn't bunch up in large herds unless they were migrating. This was more than unusual.
Their alarm was palpable as they scrambled down through the rocks and brush. A few lost their footing and fell. Others tumbled over the injured deer on the ground. But they kept coming. She couldn't tell the bucks from the large does because the males had dropped their antlers and they'd not yet regrown.
The animals didn't see her until they were a little more than a hundred yards away, but the sight of her didn't stop them. Instead, they started an arc to the right up the hillside and into heavier brush. She could hear branches snap and dislodged rocks tumble down the incline. She witnessed several more deer drop away and lay down, too exhausted to continue.
Then she saw the aircraft as it rose over the horizon. At first she thought it was a distant helicopter. But it wasn't distant. It was a drone, white against the pale blue sky.
The drone swung back and forth behind the fleeing deer, swooping down at times so close that it almost lit on their backs. It was remarkably quick as it shot through the air behind them.
The deer were being driven.
Katelyn was furious.
By the time she pulled the shotgun out from behind the seat and jacked a shell into the chamber-her intent was to blast the drone out of the sky-the aircraft had backed off and risen straight up out of range. The hum receded.
"Come back!" she shouted.
But the drone froze in place, high enough that the camera mounted on it could view the havoc it had created below and too far from her location either to identify or blow up.
She wondered if the operator was zooming the camera lens in on her standing there next to her disabled pickup. If so, Katelyn tossed her right glove to the side and gave it an emphatic middle finger.
The response of the drone was to swing from side to side as if laughing.
So she shot at it anyway, hoping that at least one of the buckshot pellets would fly high enough to do some damage. But the drone didn't waver. Instead, it slowly backed away and climbed higher.
It vanished out of her sight over the top of the hill. The hum receded until all she could hear was the wind.
She cursed the fact that she couldn't chase it until her pickup was freed.
After winching the truck out of the ditch and feeding the cable back onto the spool, Katelyn climbed into her vehicle and roared up the hill, hoping to get a visual on the drone operator before he fled. She almost got stuck again in a deep snowdrift, but she was able to downshift into four-wheel-drive low and grind through it. Thirty more yards and sheÕd be on top.
The view on the summit was what she remembered it to be. On top was a windswept flat pocked by burls of exposed granite. Beyond that was a steep descent-too steep to drive down. Fortunately, from her location she could see for miles along the western slope of the mountains.
But there was no other vehicle down there, or any tire tracks. Only a trail of injured and weakened deer, most of them fawns. And a pair of coyotes slinking out of the timber to finish them off.
She was flummoxed. Was it possible for someone to pilot a drone from so far away that they couldn't be seen?
Then, through the distant dark timber of the western slope, she saw a glimpse of a reflection of sun on metal. It vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
There was another quick flash as the vehicle ascended the mountainside, but the woods were too thick to make it out.
She knew there were old logging roads over there, and no doubt whoever had piloted the craft had retrieved it and was now getting away. There was no chance that she could get down the hillside and over the meadows in time.