Elk Hunting: A State of Mind (& Body)

“Elk hunting is a physically and mentally grueling endeavor,

but is also worth every second for nothing other than the

clarity it can provide in your life.”

–Tony J. Peterson[1]

 

During mid-September I generally spend several days in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado scouting for potential new rifle season elk hunting locales. While there during 2023, I met up with Colorado BHA Habitat Watch Volunteer Rick Hooley and Colorado BHA founder David “Elkheart” Petersen at the Bottom Shelf Brewery in Bayfield.

Three elk hunters (I’m 55 years old, Rick is 60, and David 77) caught up and talked about upcoming hunts over burgers and beers. I was privileged to shoot my first turkey while hunting with Rick and first elk with David.[2] Although hunting mountain Merriam’s is tough to beat, Rocky Mountain elk hunting is just as addicting.[3]

A rutting bull’s autumn “A-a-a-a-ai-eeeeeeeeee-ough! e-uh! e-uh!” along with a spring tom’s booming “Gobble gobble gobble!” is a wildlands symphony that speaks to your soul. As David wrote in his book Heartsblood: Hunting, Spirituality, and Wildness in America, “In real hunting, a microcosm of life itself, the trip is the destination. I bowhunt—to borrow from Jim Harrison—for all the good it does my soul.”[4]

“When hunting well, I am wild nature,” David added.[5] However, after a lifetime of writing, hunting well, and habitat conservation, David’s elk hunting days may be waning. “I finally got a cow tag (it took two pref. points), for the first rifle season no less,” David mentioned in an August email exchange. “It will doubtless be my last hunt, and I’d love to go out with a winter’s meat in the freezer.”

Anyone who has quartered and packed an elk out solo (in particular) knows that a strong back is a bedrock necessity. It’s exhausting, back-breaking work. Hunting elk, in general, requires peak physical condition no matter your age, but age is our ultimate nemesis. Rick had back surgery a few years ago and David is experiencing some back issues too, both disadvantages for packing elk meat out of the woods.[6]

During the first week of October, while portaging in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, I experienced some problematic lower back pain myself.[7] Not a good sign for the upcoming elk season. As American Hunter contributor Sven Wigert said, “If you are unable to figure out how to get an elk out of the woods without putting it on a vehicle, then you have no business hunting for one.”[8]

Steal A Hunt

“The sweetest hunts are stolen,” legendary forester-conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote in his classic book A Sand County Almanac. “To steal a hunt, either go far into the wilderness where no one has been, or else find some undiscovered place under everybody’s nose.”[9] During the 2022 elk hunting season I did the latter, but no place remains “undiscovered” for long these days.

“As I analyze a new area, the first thing I do is pull it up in my hunting app and study all access in and out. This includes roads, off-road routes and hiking trails,” American Hunter Field Editor Mark Kayser explains. “And with today’s invasion of e-bikes, I am also researching to see if they are allowed in the area. The fewer designated routes the better for increased possibilities of elk meetings.”[10]

In Beyond Fair Chase Jim Posewitz wrote, “The ethics of hunting deteriorate as machinery and modern technology are substituted for hunter stamina, skill, knowledge, and patience.”[11] Although I have nothing against mountains bikes (I own one) and e-bikes (I’ve ridden one) in general, the proliferation of trails (legal and illegal) is rampant on public lands, ruining habitat and taking out entire elk herds in the process.[12]

“The more trails built in elk habitat, the less elk there will be,” Colorado BHA Southwest Group Assistant Regional Director Alex Krebs said. “Numerous studies have linked outdoor recreation to the decline of elk populations. Elk are especially vulnerable during calving season, where calves have a significant increase in mortality rate for every disturbance.”[13]

“Outreach is also really important I think,” Alex added. “My wife coaches mountain biking and a lot of our members are mountain bikers, hikers or otherwise. We all must be stewards. It’s the only way multi-use forests can be sustainable in the long run. Awareness of our impacts as users is a critical component to future conservation from all user groups in my opinion.”[14]

I suspect if you ask most motorized and mechanized trail users, they will tell you they’re concerned about their potential impact on wildlands and wildlife. On the other hand, they never seem to advocate for identifying and closing illegal trail networks, which speaks volumes. As my friend (now deceased), World War II veteran and BHA Life member Bill Sustrich once said, “In the simplest terms, without suitable habitat we will have no game; without game, we will have no hunting; without hunting, a precious heritage of our past will be lost forever.”[15]

To make matters worse, some mechanized users and their advocacy groups quietly encourage the building of illegal trail networks on public lands.[16] Partly as a result, the Colorado BHA chapter increased its reward from $500 to $1,000 for reports or information leading to a conviction of those responsible for building illegal trails on public lands.[17] Conservation derives from the Latin conservare, meaning “to keep guard.”[18]

As America’s first conservationists, hunters have a century-old tradition of protecting habitat and policing our own ranks.[19] Nearly every state has hunter sponsored/supported programs to turn in poachers, for example. Illegal trail builders are the equivalent of poachers on steroids. By degrading the habitat wildlife needs to survive they actually do more long-term damage. A poacher may kill multiple individual animals, but illegal (and legal) trail networks eliminate entire herds.[20]

When motorized/mechanized user groups commit substantial funds and sweat equity to both policing their ranks and voluntarily identifying and closing/rehabilitating illegal trails, I’ll start to believe that they might actually give a rip about wildlands and wildlife. Actions speak louder than words. Yes, illegal trails are created by all user groups. However, in many areas mountain bike specific trail building dominates.[21] The end result is death by a thousand cuts for elk and other wildlife.[22]

Again, finding the best habitat usually means getting away from roads and trails. For example, of the 15 most-hunted game-management units in Colorado, 14 contain at least 66,000 acres of or roadless acres, and 12 have more than 100,000 acres.[23] Wilderness is the gold standard for our wild public lands, waters, and wildlife. In other words, bigger bucks, bigger bulls, and better fishing!

“Unfortunately, wilderness is a quickly vanishing resource,” MeatEater contributor Mark Kenyon explains. “Whether it be ‘big wilderness’ like you find in vast federally protected areas out west or ‘small wilderness’ like you might find on the farm behind your house—these places are constantly being chipped away at, year after year becoming victim to the encroaching footprint of man. It’s up to us—hunters, anglers, campers, climber, hikers, etc.—to keep ‘all the wild that remains’ wild.”[24]

Solitude & Ethics

Finding an elk in Colorado’s over-hunted over the counter (OTC) rifle (and likely bow) season game-management units can be as difficult as finding Sasquatch.[25] Elk need solitude and once motorized and/or mechanized “access becomes excess,” as it so often does, there is no solitude for the hunter or hunted.

“Access to hunting grounds has changed … with many great elk areas now either overrun by weekend warriors jockeying off-highway vehicles, or locked up by jealous landowners,” American Hunter contributor Aram von Benedikt said. “It has become harder and harder to find solitude in the elk woods. And to find good elk hunting, you must find solitude.”[26]

By the time Colorado’s 2nd rifle season rolls around at the end of October, the rut is generally over. “Once the rut begins winding down, so does the banter of bulls, particularly mature bulls,” American Hunter Field Editor Mark Kayser explained. “They become tight lipped as they retreat into bachelor groups and focus on rehabbing after the exhausting rut … once elk fall silent, finding them turns into a Daniel Boone event. Your woodland skills come into play.”[27]

During the 2022 I managed to find the requisite solitude, along with channeling my inner Daniel Boone, and harvested a nice bull, but 2023 didn’t work out that way.[28] “I only hunted 4½ days of the 9-day season due to a medical-related priority/conflict,” I explained to Rick Hooley in a post-hunt email. “Missed opening weekend, with first day of hunting on Monday, October 30th. Next year I’ll endeavor to hunt all nine days.”

“Plan A was to return to the area where I shot the bull last year … I encountered at least 7 other hunters over 4-plus days, which most likely indicates that after I shot the bull (there was snow on the ground then), other hunters found the kill site and decided this would be a good place to hunt,” I added. “There was little elk sign in the area. The number of hunters most likely drove them out.”

Adding insult to injury, two of these “hunters” opted to set up within 100 yards of my location one afternoon, periodically talking and coughing loudly. Their intent seemed obvious: drive me away. They did manage to “steal a hunt,” but it was mine. We are all public landowners. The key is to be courteous and respectful of each other’s respective hunts/space. That was not my experience on this day.

Taking the high road, I opted not to confront them on the way out. Anyone that brazen, inconsiderate, and ethically challenged likely has psychological-related (among other) disabilities and is beyond normal reason. As David Petersen wrote, “What the hunting community needs is not more hunters, but better hunters.”[29] These two were an affirmation, and abomination, unfortunately.[30]

That said, I wish them no ill will and hope they were able to put a bull in the freezer. They appeared to be out of state hunters—possibly clients of one of the outfitters operating in the area—and downing an elk would likely be a once in a lifetime experience for them. On the other hand, they make the rest of us look bad. After returning home I emailed David.

“Melinda had a surgical procedure the week before the start of the season, so I stayed home that first weekend to make sure she was on the mend,” I wrote. “Lots of hunters when I got down there, not the case for elk it seems.” “It’s not a strong season, so far as I can tell,” David replied. “I’ve been hearing reports similar to yours everywhere.”

Adventure Awaits

Although I didn’t have the opportunity to stress test my back packing out elk quarters this year, I’ll endeavor to make the most of hopefully many generally healthy years still on the clock. “I have learned to accept the fact that one day the hills I once climbed with ease will have become unscalable mountains,” Outdoor News contributor Tom Conroy wrote. “When that day does come, should I then expect to have roads and trails built so that I can … access places that would otherwise be inaccessible to me?”[31]

American Hunter contributor Aram von Benedikt has the answer. “I soak up his excitement, store up memories against the time when I must sit by the fire, when I can no longer climb these mountains and hunt these elk,” he wrote. “When that time comes, I will watch the fire and go hunting in my mind, climbing the trails I once walked and listening to the elk bugling in the pines.”[32]

Any time spent chasing elk, or any other wild game or outdoor experiences, is time well spent.[33] Overall, it was a good week in the elk woods. It’s all about the adventure (and clarity) interspersed occasionally with putting meat in the freezer! As David Petersen wrote in Heartsblood, wildness, solitude, and simplicity are “the Holy Trinity of … hunting.”[34] More elk hunting (and other) adventures await!

 

“We don’t win, which is annoying for two or three seconds.

But as Ulysses S. Grant said, ‘Get ‘em tomorrow.’”

Douglass Wood, Boundary Waters Journal[35]

 

 

Additional/Related Information

Trails vs. Elk

-Bryan Jones. “Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) Joins Colorado Wildlife Conservation Project (CWCP) Objection to Proposed Mad Rabbit Trails Project.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 9/26/23.

-“Colorado BHA Volunteer of the Month (Alex Krebs) June 2023.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 7/7/23.

-“Member of the Month: Alex Krebs.” Backcountry Beat: June 2023.

-“Proposed Jackson Mountain (CO) Mountain Bike Trail System Withdrawn.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 6/12/23.

-“Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Increase Reward For Illegal Trail Construction (Help Stop Trail Building ‘Free-For-All’).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 4/10/23.

-Kris Hess/Brien Webster. “CO BHA Publishes Memo on Illegal Trails.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 8/24/22.

-“Reward For Illegal Trail Construction Offered By Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 1/31/22.

-“More trails a slippery slope to less hunting.” Grand Junction (Colo.) Daily Sentinel: 12/9/21.

-“Trails vs. Elk: ‘They’re Just Dying Off.’” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 12/3/21.

-“E-Bikes & Elk: A Bad Combination.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 5/21/20.

-Sylvia Kantor. “Seeking Ground Less Traveled: Elk Responses to Recreation.” Science Findings #219 (U.S. Department of Agriculture-Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station): September 2019. https://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/sciencef/scifi219.pdf

-“Colorado BHA Report: Impacts of Off-Road Recreation on Public Lands Habitat.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 5/21/18.

-Jonathan Romero. “Illegal trail building a vexing problem for public land managers.” The Journal: 3/20/18.

-The importance of roadless areas to Colorado’s fish, wildlife, hunting and angling is detailed in this Trout Unlimited report (authored by David “Elkheart” Petersen and Keith Curley): “Where The Wild Lands Are: Colorado.” https://kenlockwood.tu.org/sites/default/files/CO-Where-the-wildlands-are.pdf

-“Elk Hunting in Southwest Colorado: Mountaineering with a Gun.” Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP)-Backcountry Bounty: Colorado: October 2008.

-“… the vast majority of us aren’t advocating for our desire to hunt, we are advocating for the protection of wildlife and their habitat,” explained Colorado BHA Board member Kassi Smith. “How can we compromise those protections? If the question of conservation was put back on us in the form of, ‘well, in order to protect the longevity of this species, you must give up hunting them or accessing their habitat,’ the majority of us would make that decision without hesitation.”

 

Colorado Elk Hunting

-“Colorado Over-The-Counter (OTC) Unit Elk Hunting: Hope Is Not A Strategy.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 8/29/23.

-PLJ Admin. “Colorado Sells More Nonresident Elk Tags than all Seven Western States Combined.” PublicLandJurisdiction.com (PLJ): 8/22/23.

-“Colorado Over-The-Counter (OTC) Unit Elk Hunting: Problems & Possibilities.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 12/14/22.

-“Colorado Over The Counter (OTC) Unit Elk Hunting.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 11/14/22.

-“Colorado BHA Tag Allocation Observations & Information.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 7/20/22.

-“Hunting Educated Mountain Merriam’s And Elk Herd/Hunting Trends (& Cinco de Mayo).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 5/5/22.

-“Southwest Colorado (‘Armed Hiking’) Elk Hunt.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 11/15/21.

-“Why Hunt Rocky Mountain Elk? (Part II).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 10/25/21.

-“Why Hunt Rocky Mountain Elk? (Part I).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 10/15/21.

 

Ethics/Fair Chase

-“Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: Mission, Issues & Actions (Triads).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 8/17/23.

-Hunt Quietly Talk: Matt Rinella Speaks to Pope & Young (5/1/23).

-“Hunting ethically is good, hard work.” Montrose Daily Press: 5/2/23.

-“Hunting Ethically Is Good, Hard Work.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 5/1/23.

-“Hunting ethically is good, hard work: A sportsmanlike, lawful pursuit of free-ranging game ensures a fair chase.” Colorado Newsline: 4/26/23.

-“The Jim Posewitz Digital Library: Required Reading For Conservationists.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 4/3/20.

-“Rifle In Hand By Jim Posewitz.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 4/6/20.

-“Hunting ethics & fair chase.” Colorado Outdoors: 6/30/14.

-“Keeping the ‘hunt’ in hunting.” Colorado Outdoors: 6/9/14.

-David “Elkheart” Petersen (founder of the first BHA state chapter, here in Colorado, and a former U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot) books. Also see his “On the Wild Edge” documentary at: https://youtu.be/-IE58L4bqEA

 

Bad Ideas

-Kaden McArthur. “New HOUSES Act Still a Threat to Our Public Lands.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 10/30/23.

-“Guest opinion: Selling off our public lands is a bad idea that won’t die.” VailDaily: 1/29/23.

-For more about the ongoing efforts by some legislators in Congress (and others) to privatize our public lands estate see the “Bad Ideas” section in: “A Hunter-Angler (Hell-Raisin’ & Habitat Savin’) Guide To Winning: Colorado BHA Examples (Browns Canyon & Camp Hale).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 10/23/23.

 

Issues Triad (PAF)[36]

  1. Public Lands & Waters (Public Lands = Freedom). Our public lands make each of us land-rich. Protecting and perpetuating public lands and waters is paramount. “Public lands personify this idea we call America—which is freedom. The human animal—the human spirit—is not intended to be confined to a cage.”[37] We are, “The voice for our wild public lands, waters and wildlife.” BHA Armed Forces Initiative (AFI) Coordinator Trevor Hubbs adds, “The BHA mission is all of ours.”[38]
  2. Access & Opportunity. We are intent on keeping public lands in public hands.[39] Access has emerged as a priority issue for North American hunters and anglers, and lack of access is cited by sportsmen and women as the No. 1 reason why we stop pursuing our passions. Access to the more than 600 million acres of public land is part of being American. However, opportunity is diminished when “access becomes excess.”[40]
  3. Fair Chase & Restraint. “We must ensure that the ethical pursuit of fish and game is upheld as dearly as our own obligation to morality and citizenship,” BHA explains in its fair chase statement.[41] As Jim Posewitz wrote in Beyond Fair Chase, “The ethics of hunting deteriorate as machinery and modern technology are substituted for hunter stamina, skill, knowledge, and patience.”[42] Conservation derives from the Latin conservare, meaning “to keep guard.”[43] As America’s first conservationists, hunters have a century-old tradition of protecting habitat and policing our own ranks.[44]

 

Founded by Mike Beagle, a former U.S. Army field artillery officer, and formed around an Oregon campfire, in 2004, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers is the voice for our nation’s wild public lands, waters and wildlife. With members spread out across all 50 states and 13 Canadian provinces and territories—including chapters in 48 states, two Canadian provinces and one territory, and Washington, D.C.—BHA brings an authentic, informed, boots-on-the-ground voice to the conservation of public lands. The Colorado BHA chapter was founded by David Petersen (a former U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot) in 2005 (the first official BHA chapter)

 

 

[1] Tony J. Peterson. “Mountain medicine.” Outdoor News: 9/16/16, p. 21.

[2] David A. Lien. “First Turkey.” Colorado Outdoors: 4/2/14.

[3] David A. Lien. “Hunting With A Man Made of Elk.” Colorado Outdoors: 1/23/14.

[4] David Petersen. Heartsblood: Hunting, Spirituality, and Wildness in America. Durango, Colorado: Raven’s Eye Press, 2000, p. 181.

[5] David Petersen. Heartsblood: Hunting, Spirituality, and Wildness in America. Durango, Colorado: Raven’s Eye Press, 2000, p. 247.

[6] David A. Lien. “Mountain Merriam’s Therapy (& Botched Shots).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 5/18/20.

[7] David A. Lien. “Saying no to sulfide mining a no-brainer for veterans.” Duluth News Tribune: 10/21/23.

[8] Sven Wigert. “Travel Management Plans.” American Hunter: September 2009, p. 8.

[9] Patrick Durkin. “All That’s Certain …” American Hunter: November 2020, p. 33.

[10] Mark Kayser, Field Editor. “Ambush Tactics For Tight-Lipped Elk.” American Hunter: October 2023, p. 33.

[11] Jim Posewitz. Beyond Fair Chase. Helena, Montana: Falcon Publishing, Inc., 1994, p. 40.

[12] David A. Lien. “Trails vs. Elk: ‘They’re Just Dying Off.’” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 12/3/21.

[13] “Colorado BHA Volunteer of the Month (Alex Krebs) June 2023.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 7/7/23.

[14] “Member of the Month: Alex Krebs.” Backcountry Beat: June 2023.

[15] David A. Lien. “Your Backcountry: San Juan Wilderness.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 4/22/19.

[16] Jonathan Romero. “Illegal trail building a vexing problem for public land managers.” The Journal: 3/20/18; Wayne Hare. “Enough already! The author used to love illegal bike trails, but now there’s too many.” High Country News: 3/5/13.

[17] “Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Increase Reward For Illegal Trail Construction (Help Stop Trail Building ‘Free-For-All’).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 4/10/23.

[18] Douglas S. Barasch. “Saying the ‘C-Word’: Conservation, finally, comes into vogue.” Onearth: Spring 2006, p. 3.

[19] Colorado BHA Co-Chair David A. Lien quoted in/by: Dennis Anderson. “Opinions vary on using drones for hunting.” Minneapolis-St. Paul (Minn.) StarTribune: 3/17/14.

[20] David A. Lien. “Reward For Illegal Trail Construction Offered By Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 1/31/22.

[21] Kris Hess/Brien Webster. “CO BHA Publishes Memo on Illegal Trails.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 8/24/22.

[22] David A. Lien. “More trails a slippery slope to less hunting.” Grand Junction (Colo.) Daily Sentinel: 12/9/21.

[23] Chris Hunt and Brian O’Donnell. “Report shows importance of roadless areas to Colorado’s hunting and fishing heritage.” Trout Unlimited: 1/4/06.

[24] Mark Kenyon (compliments of MeatEater). “Honing Your Outdoor Skills: A Letter All Hunters Should Read.” Whitetales: Winter 2023, p. 26.

[25] PLJ Admin. “Colorado Sells More Nonresident Elk Tags than all Seven Western States Combined.” PublicLandJurisdiction.com (PLJ): 8/22/23.

[26] Aram von Benedikt. “14 Miles From The Trailhead.” American Hunter: September 2023, p. 52.

[27] Mark Kayser, Field Editor. “Ambush Tactics For Tight-Lipped Elk.” American Hunter: October 2023, p. 32.

[28] David A. Lien. “Colorado Over The Counter (OTC) Unit Elk Hunting.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 11/14/22.

[29] Christopher Daley. “The Good Hunt.” www.indigogo.com: September 2012.

[30] Hunt Quietly Talk: Matt Rinella Speaks to Pope & Young (5/1/23).

[31] Tom Conroy. “Pondering while shuffling along.” Outdoor News: 11/6/20, p. 13.

[32] Aram von Benedikt. “14 Miles From The Trailhead.” American Hunter: September 2023, p. 55.

[33] Marie Nitke. “Taking on Everest: For David Lien, ‘it’s about the experience.’” Grand Rapids (Minn.) Herald-Review: 6/18/06, p. 1.

[34] David Petersen. Heartsblood: Hunting, Spirituality, and Wildness in America. Durango, Colorado: Raven’s Eye Press, 2000, p. 90.

[35] Douglass Wood. “Making Camp.” The Boundary Waters Journal: Summer 2023, p. 10.

[36] https://www.backcountryhunters.org/our_issues

[37] Ron Spomer is a hunting writer, conservationist, and photographer.

[38] Trevor Hubbs, BHA Armed Forces Initiative (AFI) Coordinator. “Lethal Minds Journal Volume 13.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 8/17/23.

[39] David A. Lien. “Fighting to keep public lands in public hands.” Grand Junction (Colo.) Daily Sentinel: 1/26/23.

[40] David A. Lien. “Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Increase Reward For Illegal Trail Construction (Help Stop Trail Building ‘Free-For-All’).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 4/10/23; Kris Hess/Brien Webster. “CO BHA Publishes Memo on Illegal Trails.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 8/24/22; David A. Lien. “More trails a slippery slope to less hunting.” Grand Junction (Colo.) Daily Sentinel: 12/9/21.

[41] https://www.backcountryhunters.org/fair_chase

[42] Jim Posewitz. Beyond Fair Chase. Helena, Montana: Falcon Publishing, Inc., 1994, p. 40.

[43] Douglas S. Barasch. “Saying the ‘C-Word’: Conservation, finally, comes into vogue.” Onearth: Spring 2006, p. 3.

  • [44] Colorado BHA Co-Chair David A. Lien quoted in/by: Dennis Anderson. “Opinions vary on using drones for hunting.” Minneapolis-St. Paul (Minn.) StarTribune: 3/17/14.
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