Ranchers, DOW hunt for answers

MEEKER — There may be differences between the ranching community and the Division of Wildlife, but everyone at last Thursday’s meeting here agreed they needed to avoid a situation like what happened in Moffat County.
“My point is, we have to come together, some way, before hostility takes over,” said Jake Hamill of Hamilton, who attended the meeting at Mountain Valley Bank with Rodney and Margaret Culverwell of Craig.
In September, Culverwell was convicted of 16 charges, four counts each on the charges of willful destruction of big game, illegal possession of wildlife, hunting without a license and hunting out of season. The last three charges are misdemeanors; the willful destruction of big game is a class 5 felony. He will be sentenced Nov. 4.
Ron Velarde, northwest regional manager for the DOW, is aware the high-profile case inflamed tensions between ranchers and the DOW.
“You think we like to go around and be hated by the people in Moffat County,” Velarde said. “Not me. I don’t want to be hated anywhere. But we’re not going to satisfy everybody. I guarantee you, that’s a fact. We’re going to give it our shot to find the solution to a problem and, it’s obvious, we have a problem in Moffat County.
“I’m not a happy camper about what has happened with the whole situation,” Velarde added. “But what I want to make sure is, kicking the Division of Wildlife’s a** every time you see it is not the right approach. We need to work on this, together.”
Bill de Vergie, DOW area wildlife manager in Meeker, said the situation in Rio Blanco County is markedly different.
“We have not had similar situations in Rio Blanco County, that I am aware of,” de Vergie said. “I think we’ve got a really good working relationship with the ranching and livestock community.”
Velarde said conditions last winter, at least in Moffat County, made the situation unique.
“I call it the perfect storm, in the Craig, Maybell area,” Velarde said. “We had an elk population, we had a lot of snow, everything just came together. We had a game damage situation, a feeding situation in the Gunnison Basin, that took the majority of the DOW’s personnel. And in the meantime, we had another feeding operation in the Eagle Valley.”
In response, Hamill pointed out, “The problem in every situation is different. You can’t have a blanket fix for everything. That’s reason we have to have the communication. We have to have cooperation from the business entities in town. This is big business in this part of northwest Colorado. We’ve got to figure out something that is workable for everybody. We need everybody’s input on this to make the thing work.”
Dorothea Farris of Carbondale, a member of the Wildlife Commission, attended last week’s meeting, along with fellow commissioner Roy McAnally of Craig.
“This particular type of meeting, each commissioner is required to have two public meetings a year within their district,” de Vergie said, adding there was a DOW district meeting last month in Carbondale.
In addressing Hamill’s comments, Farris asked, “Have the ranchers got together to say this is a problem we have with the number of elk and come up with some suggestions they can bring to the board, a bullet-point list from the ranching community of things they would like to see, to avoid the conflict you are talking about? The ranching community has been very upset, and you expect a conflict again, you’ve stated that.”
Hamill said he didn’t want to see a repeat of what happened in Moffat County.
“Because we’re coming in to the winter months … we need to get away from that kind of situation,” Hamill said. “I think with cooperation and talking and a little bit of ingenuity … this can be avoided.
“It’s not the DOW’s fault we have this concentration of wildlife, especially elk, and it’s not the ranchers’ fault,” Hamill said. “We need to work together to solve this, before we have a situation that gets out of control.”
Velarde said, if anything, this was a legislative problem, and it required a legislative solution.
“I’m not going to lay this on me,” Velarde said. “This is a legislative issue. One of the things we all need to understand is that if we have a problem with a statute, then it takes legislation to change it. You, the people, have that right to do it. Not me. If there is a statute, I guarantee you we are obligated to follow the statute. That’s what they pay us for.”
Velarde described the DOW’s role as three-fold, though it may be most closely associated with the enforcement side, he said.
“It’s not just law enforcement,” Velarde said. “Law enforcement is just a small portion of what we do. If you asked, generally, our officers statewide, we probably spend 30 percent of our time on law enforcement. This last winter, we spent the majority of our time on game damage.
“But we have the statutory and the regulatory, and then it’s my responsibility to decide, from a manpower standpoint, so what are the priorities.”
Reducing the wildlife population, which came up during last Thursday’s meeting, wouldn’t necessarily fix the problem, Velarde said.
“I could reduce the population … and I guarantee we would still have game damage problems,” Velarde said. “I will never be able to fix the total problem.”
The DOW regional manager said all parties involved have a stake in the huge hunting economy in Colorado, and as a consequence, a shared responsibility to work together to address concerns.
“The ranching community is an integral part of this,” Velarde said. “The business community is an integral part of this. I want to point out, it’s not just the Division of Wildlife. There are a whole bunch of ranchers, those elk are their elk during the season. Then, after the season, it’s our elk. You know that and I know that. They don’t want any hunters in there while they’re hunting bulls, and I understand that. But, all of a sudden, the day after the last hunting season, it’s now my problem. It’s our problem, collectively.”