COLORADOAN - The tat-tat-tat of an assault rifle, the blast of a shotgun and the pop-pop of pistols echoed through the wide-open Pawnee National Grasslands on a recent weekend.
Tracts of charred grass littered with bullet casings and broken glass mark the popular shooting area - where anyone can go free of charge - about 45 minutes east of Fort Collins.
The U.S. Forest Service is advising shooters to heed the rules after 17 fires at the grasslands the past 14 months were ignited by shooters. All of them received citations. Some were small and others grew to as many as 120 acres, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
"Some people are so stupid, they'll take out a can of gas and start shooting," said Aric Trujillo, who joined friends for a Windsor High School class of 2010 reunion of sorts at the grasslands Thursday.
Trujillo and his friends took turns firing a .45 caliber Sig Sauer at an empty Heineken mini keg, some water bottles and other targets. Afterward, they picked up the debris - but perhaps not all of the spent bullet casings.
"There's so many millions littered out here, it's almost impossible to do," Trujillo said.
His group was only one of a few out on a sunny weekday. On springtime weekends, the area - a makeshift shooting range a couple miles inside the Pawnee grassland border - becomes crowded.
"On a nice weekend, (law enforcement) can easily have about 100 contacts per day with shooters," said forest service spokeswoman Reghan Cloudman.
The springtime traffic increases largely because the mountains are too snowy and cold for shooters. She said fires have been started by illegal targets, and eight of the 17 were caused by tracer bullets, which contain a brightly burning powder that allows the shooter to visibly track the trajectory. Those bullets are illegal on federal land.
Guns, ammo flying off shelves
Gun stores, meanwhile, are having a tough time keeping bullets and firearms in stock.
"Certainly, in my lifetime, there's never been anything like this," said Tim Brough, owner of Rocky Mountain Shooter's Supply on East Mulberry Street near Interstate 25.
Since the end of November, his store has sold more than a year's supply of bullets: about a quarter-million of them. He said guns, much like ammo, have "virtually vanished" off shelves, and he doesn't expect the industry to recover for perhaps a year and a half.
Controversial state legislation aimed at tightening firearms regulations has fueled a run on guns and ammunition across Colorado. Brough has been involved with the firearms industry since 1985, and he said there have been occasional surges, such as after the 2008 presidential election. Lately, the increased sales have brought more people aged 40 to 70 who are interested in following up on their purchases with target shooting.
"This has gotten them back into it," he said. "It used to be primarily hunters, but it's shifting to recreationalists ... the industry has boomed."
Bullets that are .22 caliber and 9 millimeter are the most difficult to find.
"Most of that's due to hoarding," Brough said. When people have to go store-to-store to find the correct-size bullets, they're more likely to buy up any available, he said.
Trujillo's group bought four boxes of .45 caliber ammunition from a store in Windsor. They paid about $120 for 200 rounds and said they bought the last four boxes available.
Jim Joy, who also was out shooting at the Pawnee grassland on Thursday while visiting his daughter and son-in-law, said his home state of South Carolina has had similar shortages, "and it's not even hunting season yet."
The family members shot skeet with a 12-gauge shotgun.
"It's probably the closest place to shoot that is free and safe," said John Gaffney, Joy's son-in-law from Fort Collins, adding that he's only gone shooting there about three times. "We thought this would be cool."
Brough said he tells his customers about the Pawnee grassland, giving them brochures detailing shooter safety rules. His store typically doesn't sell tracer bullets, but he doesn't believe the newer ones are especially capable of causing fires. He said sometimes powder will hit the ground 20 to 30 feet from the shooter and cause a fire.
"Any time you're shooting, you want to be aware of that," he said, adding that he recommends shooters always have a shovel and fire extinguisher with them.
Army to help combat shooting issues
A designated shooting area is scheduled to be built in the Pawnee grassland this summer by the U.S. Army, with funding from the National Rifle Association and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
To date, there aren't any designated shooting areas in any of the region's national forests or grasslands. The new site is anticipated to rein in problems such as fires and trash, Cloudman said.
About 30 benches are to be built, along with berms to stop bullets, and a designated parking area will include signs. Shooting is one of the most popular uses of the grasslands, which also are used for livestock grazing, hiking and wildlife watching.
"We've been trying to just educate people as much as we can," she said.
Rules on shooting in the grassland are available on the U.S. Forest Service website.
The Pawnee National Grasslands are in Weld County east of Interstate 25. West of the highway in Larimer County, only one shooting-related fire in the past 14 months was caused on federal lands - from shooting an illegal target near Loveland.
Outside of federal lands in Larimer County, there haven't been many recent problems with recreational shooting, according to the Larimer County Sheriff's Office. But the agency cautions that people will be held liable for any damages caused from shooting.
"It really boils down to if you're doing anything in an unsafe manner that could put somebody else in jeopardy," sheriff's spokesman John Schulz said.
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