Local ranchers, DOW say HPP can help resolve conflicts

RBC — Rodney Culverwell was recently sentenced in Moffat County for four felony convictions for the shooting deaths of four elk last winter on his property.
Culverwell, a 41-year-old rancher, was sentenced Nov. 4 to 60 days in county jail, two years probation, 172 hours community service and $19,567 in fines and fees.
He has since appealed.
Culverwell and his wife attended a DOW district meeting Oct. 9 in Meeker. Landowners here, while not privy to details of Culverwell’s situation, say a DOW program aimed at resolving game damage issues could have perhaps played a role in resolving the conflict.
The Habitat Partnership Program was developed in the early 1990s for that very purpose. It is funded by 5 percent of hunting license sales.
“HPP is a program that helps alleviate landowner game damage problems,” said Randy Hampton, DOW public information officer for the northwest region. “The DOW administers the program. We handle the financial end of it. But the local folks make the decisions.”
Reed Kelley, a local cattleman, was involved in the organization of HPP at the state level. He represented sportsmen.
“It’s the best thing DOW has going for landowners and these kinds of conflict problems,” Kelley said.
Kelley said he first heard Culverwell was turned down by the HPP committee. He later was told Culverwell did not approach the HPP committee in Moffat County until after the shootings.
“That’s the first place this should have been addressed,” Kelley said. “But something broke down in Moffat County.”
From his experience, Kelley said HPP has been effective in Rio Blanco County.
“We have had these kinds of big conflicts,” Kelley said. “But we haven’t had quite this kind of problem. Our HPP committee seems to be more in balance here.”
Hampton said, prior to the sentencing, he couldn’t go into specifics of the Culverwell case, but defended the DOW’s actions in the matter.
“They are trying to do the best we an for wildlife,” Hampton said. “It’s a good agency, and it’s filled with passionate people who care about what they do.”
Bill de Vergie, DOW area wildlife manager in Meeker, said the situation is different in Rio Blanco County from what he has heard about in Moffat County.
“Attitudes are different here,” de Vergie said. “Rio Blanco County is a very conservative community, but a more practical community. There’s an anti-government sentiment (in Moffat County). You find that in some ag communities, because you have that independent streak; they have made their own way.”
Wiley Berthelson, a RBC rancher, was part of HPP in the early days.
“The way it got started … there was always quite a lot of conflict between ranchers, farmers and landowners, and the DOW,” Berthelson said. “We had a change of directors with the DOW, and he wanted to get the relations between landowners and the DOW a lot better. He wanted to fix things. He wanted to work at it a helluva lot harder than previous directors. So we got together and started brainstorming.”
Berthelson said, from his perspective, the program has been effective.
“It made available quite a lot of money for some pretty worthwhile projects, like habitat enhancement and wildlife friendly fencing and damage prevention material,” Berthelson said.
Once an active investigation was going on in Moffat County, Berthelson is not sure whether HPP could have resolved the situation between Culverwell and the DOW.
“I’m not sure I agree when it was alluded to (at the DOW district meeting in Meeker) that HPP was obligated to settle that conflict,” Berthelson said. “It probably would have been nice if they had stepped in and said, ‘Can we help?’ But I’m not sure they were obligated.”
Berthelson suspects HPP would take a more active role in the future.
“What they can do now is know these are the kind of problems that can happen,” Berthelson said. “I would expect the HPP Committee to get more involved and work things out before someone loads a rifle.”
Berthelson has seen firsthand the HPP program work here.
“I think it has been successful and it continues to serve its purpose,” Berthelson said. “I’ve even used it a couple of times in the last eight or nine years. I went to the local committee and they paid for my seed purchase. I plowed up two different fields and put it into mule deer habitat. That was probably $6,000 or $7,000 worth of seed that didn’t come out of my pocket. You know, that helps. That benefits me and that benefits wildlife.”