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Rifle, Crossbow, Atlatl? Colorado Petition Seeks To Legalize Hunting With Spear-Thrower

The atlatl is used to throw arrows, darts and flexible spears. Enthusiasts say it's a controlled movement, with no running start or leap required.

Update November 15, 2019 at 3:30p.m.:  

According to Travis Duncan with Colorado Parks and Wildlife: "The commission voted to dismiss both citizen petitions on allowing atlatls and stone broadheads for use in hunting big game at today's meeting. The Commission noted there are no quality standards on sharpness of blades, weight or design on stone projectiles which can lead to inconsistent performance and more injured animals on the landscape."

The original story continues below.

There’s an effort in Colorado to add a new kind of weapon (actually, a very, very old one) to the list of what people are allowed to use to hunt big game. That weapon is a prehistoric spear-thrower called an “atlatl.”

You can think of an atlatl like a “Chuckit,” one of those ball-launchers people use to throw tennis balls to their dogs, but instead of a tennis ball there’s a spear, arrow or dart.

“Exactly, it’s the same concept,” said Devin Pettigrew, who’s petitioning Colorado Parks and Wildlife to allow atlatls during archery season.

Pettigrew is a PhD student in archaeology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has published research about the atlatl, but he said this petition isn’t for research purposes. He just wants to hunt with what he calls “an ancestral tool of humankind.”

“It’s part of what allowed us to make a fuller use of the landscape and outcompete other species,” said Pettigrew. “In the Americas, it was in use from about 15,000 years ago until about 2,000 years ago. So in Colorado for the vast majority of time that people were here, this was a primary hunting tool.”

Ancient atlatls have been found across the Mountain West. Humans used the weapon for thousands of years to pierce everything from seals and bison to conquistadors before they mostly ditched it for the bow and arrow.

The petition submitted to Colorado officials proposes that it be legal to use an atlatl to hunt big game during archery season. A number of other states have already done this, including Missouri, Nebraska and Alabama. In Alaska it’s always been legal. Some people still useit for seal hunting there, though it’s known as “nuqaq.” 

“In the mouth of the Yukon River they still use them for first strikes on seals,” said Richard VanderHoek, an archaeologist with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. “In Alaska you can hunt with anything unless they tell you you can’t.”

In many other states, it’s the other way around: Hunters can only use the tools and materials specifically described by the state.

“None of the [Mountain West] states allow hunting of big game using spears,” said Kelsey Eberly, who has reviewed state policies on atlatls. “Some Mountain West states do allow spearfishing, but they vary as to whether atlatls will be allowed. Idaho seems to allow them for hunting forest grouse.” 

Eberly is a staff attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, an organization focused on protecting animals. 

“We certainly don’t celebrate adding new ways of hunting,” said Eberly, who worries it could lead to undue animal suffering if unskilled atlatl enthusiasts manage to injure an animal without killing it. “Is this just allowing people who don’t know what they’re doing to throw spears around a forest? Or is it more on par with methods we already regard as legal?”

Pettigrew thinks the difficulty of hunting with an atlatl would keep everyone but the devoted away. According to the World Atlatl Association, the motion is “as normal as throwing a snowball,” but hunting with an atlatl requires getting a lot closer to an animal than other methods.

“You can hit small targets if you’re really careful and practice a lot,” said Pettigrew, who said he’s killed a rabbit using an atlatl. “I envision people hunting with these things who are really dedicated to it.”

Pettigrew is scheduled to present his petition to Colorado Parks & Wildlife commissioners on Friday morning in Wray. He filed a separate petition to allow stone-tipped projectiles, rather than just metal-tipped ones.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Rae Ellen Bichell was a reporter for KUNC and the Mountain West News Bureau from 2018 to 2020.