Tom Mather first sensed the deer and elk were in trouble on New Year’s Day while he was out hunting rabbit with his father-in-law. “You could see their bones sticking out and their hair was all matted and falling out,” he recalls. Wallowing through five-foot snowdrifts that had buried their winter forage, the animals sought in vain for food. Many others already lay dead, victims of the harshest winter in local memory. Like many citizens of Craig, Colo., Mather had hunted deer and elk for years, but now he was moved to save them. Says Mather, 34, “Human nature takes over in this kind of situation.”
Residents of the economically depressed Rocky Mountain industrial hamlet of 8,100, midway between Denver and Salt Lake City, soon proved him right. Mather decided to hold a feed-raising dinner at the bar he owns with his brother, Michael. Admission: one bale of hay or a cash donation for feed pellets. Eight hundred turned out and, with Mather donating 25 cents per drink sold, the evening netted $4,500 and 21 tons of hay. A local oil company managed by Mather’s sister offered storage space and 200 gallons of gasoline for those who hauled the food to the animals. Mather soon had 350 volunteers. “I don’t believe there’s anybody in this town that hasn’t gotten involved,” he declares.
Every morning Mather drives a pickup piled high with hay bales and pellet sacks to his feed spot some three miles out of town, where about 130 elk and 75 deer wait hungrily. Local wildlife officials estimate a normal winter kills 12 percent of the deer and 10 percent of the elk, but during the 47 days of subzero temperatures that swept in after Jan. 1, Mather feared upwards of 30 percent might die. Along with the state’s Division of Wildlife, the volunteers now daily feed some 6,800 deer and 7,240 elk at 80 spots. Even so, it’s common to see up to 40 animals lying dead near the sites. Back at the bar, Mather takes 60-odd phone calls a day and opens a flood of mail bringing donations and praise. “What really gets me,” says Mather, “are the letters from kids. Sometimes I get so emotional I start to bawl.”
Not everyone backs Mather’s program. “Every time we see an animal that’s not full strength,” says Tom Lines, area wildlife manager, “we aren’t inclined to go out and feed it, because it creates an artificial situation.” Mather’s efforts met with official skepticism from the start, and while the state has now pitched in, many of Craig’s citizens feel the Division of Wildlife has taken in a lot of hunting fees without helping wildlife enough.
Lines also accuses Mather of glory seeking, but Tom insists what he’s done “is for the animals and the town.” He and his wife of 11 years, Pat, a bank assistant vice president, have three blond daughters, aged 5, 8 and 9. “They’ve learned that the deer and elk are a part of the community,” says Pat. Craig’s citizens, who have known hard times since construction ended last year on a nearby power plant, also feel a bond with the animals. “For years we’ve taken from them,” explains Truman Pooler, 37, an unemployed heavy-equipment operator. “Now there’s a winter they need help, and we all want to do it.” Mather has another explanation: “Everybody has a soft spot in their heart for Bambi.”