Cal King: A Wyoming Wildlife legendWritten by Echo Renner
“I was 28 years old, and had 80 head of horses to do my job. In 1956, they appointed me the first wildlife biologist in the Big Horn Basin,” comments King.
King’s career, and life, has been filled with adventure. He replaced retiring game warden “Tennessee” Hall at Thermopolis. On one of Cal’s first workdays, Hall picked him up in his pickup with a frozen coyote sitting upright between them on the seat. Hall drove through the hills, served Cal only whiskey for supper, and they spent the night in an old cabin with only one fence post to burn for heat.
Cal’s career intensified while patrolling up Owl Creek when he and the local sheriff apprehended a fugitive on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List. The individual was hiding at an area ranch.
King was one of the first wildlife managers in the West to connect harvest management and herd size to plant health and forage availability. “I did research and wrote a thesis on greasewood, black sage, silver sage, curl leaf mahogany, and many other things,” he recalls. “I’ve studied bugs a lot, spiders, rattlesnakes, ants – you name it. Allied Chemical even sent me to the World’s Fair for a month to talk about ants, and later I started King Chemical Supply & Pest Control. I discovered a Sheep Eater Indian Tepee, now on display in the museum in Worland. I made a beautiful herbarium and donated it to the University of Wyoming (UW). I had a large insect collection, and it’s now in the high school in Thermopolis.” After retirement, King raised homing pigeons, which flew around the Big Horn Basin.
“Rabies is very serious, and skunks carry the virus on their whiskers. Rabid skunks really got to be a problem everywhere, and the police couldn’t handle them, so they asked me to help. I patented a humane skunk trap so you could dispose of the skunk without having to touch it,” explains King.
“Reestablishing Elk in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming was one of the first books I wrote. In 1887-’88 there was a winter storm that wiped out the livestock industry, banks, and everything. There were about 13 elk left on the Bighorns. The ranchers and the sportsmen were together on things, and they wanted to transplant elk into the Bighorns,” recalls King. “Senator Skovar appropriated $10,000 to have the Cavalry drive elk from Montana above Yellowstone to the Bighorns, but they couldn’t drive them and decided to move them by wagon and train. They took the first load to Sheridan, and the next to Basin. I was just a young game warden, and I got to meet the engineer, which I thought that was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. Another load was shipped to Dornick, south of the Wind River Canyon, and the last to Lost Cabin.”
King also researched and wrote History of Wildlife in the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming and Reasons for the Decline of Game in the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming. All three are out of print, and considered rare books. King doesn’t deem himself a writer, but felt it important to interview numerous ranchers, trappers, game wardens, biologists, and others, conduct extensive research, and preserve that wildlife history.
King was born in Fort Collins, Colo. in 1921. When he was three, during the Teapot Dome oil boom, his family moved to Edgerton and his father opened a successful used furniture store.
When Cal was four, his mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis and confined to a sanitarium. Officials feared Cal, and his two brothers might contract the disease, and they were not allowed to visit her. Growing up without his mother had a devastating affect on young Cal, but he learned to be independent and self-sufficient.
He was a good student, and graduated salutatorian of his class. U.S. Senator Joseph O’Mahoney of Wyoming sponsored King’s appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy, where he won his weight class in boxing. After graduation, he shipped to the South Pacific. During WWII, he flew fighter planes from aircraft carriers on several successful missions against the Japanese before he was shot down and sustained a serious head injury.
After the war, King returned to school, earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology, and then a Master’s at the University of Wyoming (UW). There, he met Judy, who would become his wife and best friend. Cal later earned a law degree and studied entomology by correspondence through Purdue University.
Around 1996, he and Dr. G.R. Spiller created the King-Spiller Wildlife Refuge with a conservation easement through The Nature Conservancy. The University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service and Renewable Resource Department, along with the WGFD, aided in the project. “One day, I just decided to save this property, so I did it,” says King.
King worked with UW and Extension to create an outdoor learning center. Signs label abundant grasses, forbs, weeds, cacti, and other vegetation on the 30 acres of pristine grassland along the north edge of Thermopolis. The WGFD installed signs about the abundant wildlife and a rain guzzler was installed to catch and store rain to provide water for wildlife. A path winds through the valley and up onto King-Spiller Butte, with a spectacular view of Thermopolis and the surrounding area.
When Judy passed away, Cal built a memorial to her there, as well as an outdoor church.
King is a successful investor, owning several properties, including two ranches. “I’ve made a lot of money in uranium and silver. I’m pretty well-off for a sheep herder,” he jokes. He is also a philanthropist, and during the 1960s, he hosted a fundraiser for crippled children, raising $18,000.
Most recently he’s been researching and writing the history of three significant events in Wyoming, while Thermopolis-area artist, George Rupp, paints the scenes. One is a depiction of a trapper with the feet of a bear. “Trappers are supposed to leave a supply of wood next to a cabin so the next trapper can start a fire and warm up. Some trapper used this particular cabin, but forgot to replenish the wood. The trapper in the painting froze his feet because there was no wood, so he killed a grizzly bear and used the front paws for feet,” explains King.
Another painting is of a massive antelope winterkill after a landowner built a fence the antelope were unable to crawl under, blocking them from their winter range.
The third is called, “The 1948 Elk Slaughter at Copeman’s Tomb,” when a man slaughtered numerous elk on the western slope of the Bighorn Mountains.
Now 89 years old, Cal remains very active. “I’ve had a great life,” he says.