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Artwork by Harry Tennant

On the Ever-Shrinking Wild

A native Denverite reflects on her hometown's changing ecosystem.

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Fifty years ago, Denver’s urban world ended at Orchard Road. That was where the wild began, a vast, woven blanket of prairie grasses peppered with snakes, pronghorns, and sometimes a lone falcon trainer and bird hunter—my dad. He’d spend long hours among the foxtail and thistle of Cherry Hills, coaching his raptors to flush game into the crosshairs of his 12-gauge shotgun. After bagging a pheasant or two for dinner, he’d return at dusk to the quietly growing city.

In the ’90s, when my sister and I were old enough to join him, my dad took us with him to hunt. By then the residential rampart was spreading quickly. Highlands Ranch was now the edge of civilization. We’d take the short drive from Englewood south, bouncing along while my dad’s abstractions of long-gone Cherry Hills farms sounded like static. There, 10 miles beyond his old hunting grounds, he taught us to identify the cast members of an ever-shrinking wild: quail and doves and species Dad taught us never to shoot, like gyrfalcon and red-tailed hawk. Often, on the drive home, he’d lament the shortage of pheasant sightings compared to his youth.

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When I was big enough to hold the 12-gauge myself, my dad took me out past Orchard Road and let me shoot it. I was excited. I’d never cradled anything larger than a one-pump BB gun, and I’d only ever shot at dirt clumps.

“Point it over at that Cape buffalo,” he said, gesturing to a hilltop.

I looked back at him quizzically. I saw no buffalo.

“Don’t you see it?” he asked. “The black curls of his horns?”

I scanned the hill and spotted a gnarled, dark stump about 50 yards out. I steadied the heavy barrel and absently let the gun stock drift away from my shoulder as I aimed. I pulled the trigger, and the thing kicked back like a vengeful horse. I said nothing and handed the shotgun back to my dad, a salty tear running down my face. He chuckled and patted my back.

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A franchised breakfast place now stands where I shot at that Cape buffalo. Beyond that, there’s a Target and a gated community. In the past 10 years, I’ve seen cement swallow the sites of many more beloved memories. It’s not surprising, considering that last year alone 90,000 newcomers moved into Colorado.

But I’m not one of those people who believe the boomtown sprawl is suffocating. Native species will always be more interesting to me than a “NATIVE” bumper sticker. I believe there’s room for everyone to breathe, even as the beguiling LoDo circus clogs my Saturday night drive home. And as the newcomers flock to the city to create memories of their own, I cherish those hours of collecting goat heads in my socks, those bumpy rides out to Highlands Ranch, and even the sting of that 12-gauge on my shoulder.

I don’t feel trampled in the great stampede to the Mile High City. I just think of my dad roaming Cherry Hills when they were only hills as I recount when Highlands Ranch was a ranch, and I shrug. The wild edges farther afield, but in Colorado it never really goes away. Especially since the feral landscape is preserved in my mind. Like my dad, I simply watch the birds fly farther south and realize it’s my turn to share the memory.

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