Colorado’s West Elk Mountains are home to some of the most prominent laccolithic peaks in Colorado. These dome-shaped peaks were created from violent volcanic eruptions where molten lava expanded between older sedimentary layers, causing the covering layers to heave upward.
West Elk Peak, Mount Gunnison, Mount Axtell, and Carbon Peak are all serene, awe-inspiring laccoliths. At the same time, volcanic eruptions caused West Elk Breccia (a conglomerate of ash and welded tuff) to form, which over time slowly eroded away to form elegant shapes and pinnacles. The landscape left behind is one of solitude and peace – a fitting place for Colorado’s longest-tenured game warden, someone that had to stay cool under pressure.
Marion Clifford Coghill or “Cliff” was born March 4, 1924, in Syracuse, Kansas, an area heavily impacted during the Great American Dust Bowl. At a young age, Cliff moved with his family to a ranch near Montrose, Colorado where he attended school, and later enlisted into the U.S. Army at the age of 21. Cliff served 8 months in Korea with Company B of the 20th Infantry earning several service medals and accolades. After returning home, he married Patsy McElroy in Aztec, New Mexico and the couple relocated to Gunnison, Colorado around 1950. Cliff’s military background and a love for the natural world set him up well for a long career with Colorado Game and Fish, which is now Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Proudly Serving Colorado for 47 Years
For 47 years, Cliff patrolled the Gunnison backcountry and infamous West Elk Wilderness, commonly on foot or horseback. There wasn’t a ridge or rock outcropping Cliff likely hadn’t set track on. While Cliff made several notable law enforcement cases, he played a critical role in helping elk recover in the Gunnison area while reducing game damage to local ranchers.
I first met Cliff in 2007 after he’d already been retired for a decade. For years, Cliff commonly stopped by the Gunnison DOW Office to say “hello” and reminisce about the “old days” – telling stories more worthy of a good campfire. Our conversations revolved around his extensive knowledge of the sagebrush and the fact he’d seen more Gunnison sage-grouse than I likely ever would. I can only hope someday to spend a morning up Ohio Creek Valley with the sun rising over the Continental Divide, illuminating the West Elk Breccia and snow-capped peaks, with hundreds, maybe a thousand, strutting amorous sage-grouse all around – just like Cliff did.
Cliff was one of the first to speak on behalf of the grouse after his decades of observation. In 1999, the Gunnison sage-grouse hunting season was closed indefinitely and conservation efforts began to rebound populations. When Cliff wasn’t working, he was active in other Gunnison community events, such as helping organize Cattlemen’s Days, Colorado’s longest ongoing rodeo. And when I picture Cliff, he’s always wearing his favorite worn-out felt cowboy hat with that great big smile. It seems like, with all things in life that Cliff was involved, he did it for the long haul.
Cliff is also credited with the ingenious idea to safely handle trapped elk for relocation by using a large cargo net. Nuisance elk were trapped in large baited corrals, then pushed through a squeeze-chute one by one where they jumped a 5-foot wall into the unsuspecting net. From there, elevated off the ground, biologists could ear-tag, neck-band, and collect biological samples to determine overall health.
A tireless worker, Cliff was involved in several winter feeding operations, most notable the 1978-79 project where deer were fed special dietary pellets instead of hay, likely reducing deer loss to 25% instead of upward of 60% as predicted.
Cliff Coghill Career Achievement Award
In honor of Cliff’s notable wildlife career, Colorado Wildlife Employees Protective Association annually recognizes a Colorado wildlife officer who has provided 20 years or more of dedicated service to the state’s wildlife resources with the Cliff Coghill Career Achievement Award. Notable recipients include Bob Davies (2013), Mike Bauman (2014), Kevin Wright (2015), Perry Will (2016), Bob Thompson (2017), Larry Rogstad (2018), Bill deVergie (2019), Dean Riggs (2020), and John Hood (2021).
Colorado Parks and Wildlife is celebrating its 125th Anniversary throughout 2022 to honor the legacy of our agency and the talented staff who make fulfilling CPW’s important mission possible. For more stories like this, please visit the Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s 125th Anniversary web page!
Written by Nathan Seward. Nathan is a Colorado Parks and Wildlife conservation biologist.