Steamboat Springs wildlife officer ends storied career
Steamboat Springs — Those who deal with wildlife for a living have some great stories to tell.
Mike Middleton is no exception.
He retired in August after 33 years of chasing bears, working with ranchers and helping manage the largest elk herd in North America.
“I have hundreds of bear stories,” Middleton said Wednesday as he reflected on his career with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, a state agency that merged in 2011 with Colorado State Parks to become Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Colleagues and friends held a retirement party for Middleton on Sunday at Olympian Hall. A volunteer firefighter for 20 years, Middleton now has transitioned to a full-time firefighting position with Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue.
“Mike’s been an easy guy to work with,” said Area Wildlife Manager Jim Haskins, who has worked alongside Middleton his entire career. “He’s one of those people known as a guy that’s willing to help. If he was around, he would make himself available to help you.”
Middleton, 59, said he wanted to be a wildlife officer since he was 14. While attending Colorado State University, Middleton landed a seasonal research job with the DOW that had him trapping and tagging big horn sheep. He did that throughout college and was hired on full time in 1980. After 11 months of training, he was assigned to Steamboat, where he would raise two children with is wife, Lucy, while working 200 to 300 hours each month.
“You were expected to give the state a lot of time,” Middleton said.
Haskins said Middleton was assigned a difficult district. The winters are harsh in the Elk River Valley, and there were constant issues with wildlife damaging ranch property.
“He established a great rapport with people in the ranching community and was well-respected,” Haskins said. “If you don’t get along with those folks, your career in that area is fairly short.”
Haskins said the “five-pound” set of keys that Middleton carried was evidence of his strong working relationships with the ranchers. Middleton had keys to almost every gate he ever would need to open in North Routt County.
“That demonstrates a lot of trust,” Haskins said.
When it came to law enforcement, Haskins said, Middleton was known for being very fair.
“He was not a black-and-white person,” Haskins said. “He used good judgement.”
Middleton recalled one time when he received a report of people catching more fish than allowed. He drove up to Walton Peak on Rabbit Ears Pass and met with a father and his teenage sons, who had caught buckets of fish. Fishing more than the limit carried a fine of $10 per fish.
“It didn’t seem right to write someone a ticket for all those fish,” Middleton said.
Instead, he told them to hold off on cooking their steak dinners and have a fish fry. Middleton agreed to write tickets only for the fish they could not eat, and they proceeded to stuff themselves with brook trout.
Middleton ended up writing a ticket to the father for about $200, and even that was lenient.
“It was definitely thinking outside the box,” Middleton said. “When my supervisor saw that, he didn’t know what to think.”
There is one other story Middleton likes to tell that further demonstrates his knack to think differently.
He once received a report of two men who illegally killed at least nine elk by Shield Mountain. Middleton did not have a lot to go on, but witnesses said they would be able to identify the men, so Middleton went looking for them. He contacted a group at camp and talked them into letting him take a group photo that he later would send them.
“My ulterior motive was to get a picture of them,” Middleton said.
It worked, and the witnesses were able to identify the men from the photo. Middleton and colleagues caught the men as they left the woods, and they had to pay tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
“They were unhappy about it,” Middleton said. “They got tricked.”
When it comes to bear stories, Middleton’s favorite actually is kind of embarrassing.
Middleton once found himself jumping over Old Town Steamboat Springs fences as he chased a bear. Finally, with the angry bear 5 feet away in the fork of tree branches, Middleton blasted it with bear spray. Although the bear got a generous dose, Middleton quickly realized the wind was blowing hard back toward him.
“I got it just as bad as the bear,” Middleton said. “The two of us are just rolling around in this backyard, rolling around over each other blind and in extreme pain.”
The bear wandered off, and eventually Middleton walked out to his truck covered in the orange spray. A police officer drove by and stopped to check on Middleton.
“He just burst out laughing because he knew exactly what had happened,” Middleton said.
Humorous bear stories aside, Middleton is a conservationist at heart, and there are some topics related to his career that are difficult to joke about.
“It’s disappointing to see how much good rangeland and wildlife habitat has been developed,” Middleton said. “That’s what I think of quite a bit when I think back on the years. Luckily, there is a fair amount that is the way it was, and a whole lot of people that want to keep it that way.”
To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com
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