OUT: Sunday Column September 14, 2008

Nobody wins in elk/rancher conflict

When Moffat County rancher Rodney Culverwell was convicted last week for his illegal killing in February of 16 elk that were feeding on his haystack, it’s hard to say who won and who lost.

Culverwell, who maintained during his trial in Craig that he was acting to protect his property and his cattle from the hungry elk, certainly lost in the eyes of court and faces some pretty stiff penalties.

He could be sentenced to three years in jail and up to $100,000 for each of four felonies along with miscellaneous fines and penalties for other less-serious wildlife crimes.

But his conviction carries a bitter-sweet note, even for those who feel he over-stepped his rights.

The fact Culverwell even had to appear in court, or decided it necessary to kill the elk after he felt the Division of Wildlife wasn’t doing enough to protect him or other ranchers, bespeaks the long-standing conflicts between ranchers and elk in northwest Colorado.

Those conflicts last winter were exacerbated by deep snows and prolonged cold.

People love wildlife, and Colorado has few animals as charismatic as elk, whether it’s a herd stringing across a field or a solitary bull outlined on a ridge.

Northwest Colorado capitalizes on this attraction, calling itself the “Elk Hunting Capitol of the World,” a title that implies an abundance of elk and ready hunting success.

Elk hunting provides an important economic boost to rural Colorado, and, in some places, ranchers find selling elk-hunting privileges almost as profitable as raising cattle.

Culverwell’s ranch, the Rio Romo, leased its access for $80,000 last year, according to testimony during his trial.

But most of the year there are too many elk, is what many ranchers will tell you. Trampling crops, competing with cattle for grazing, and generally an unruly nuisance, especially when a herd decides to go from Point A to Point B without opening the gates.

Except during hunting season, of course.

Then, it’s a play-to-pay situation, and a couple thousand dollars will get you access through a five-strand fence to the elk on the other side.

Pay a few thousand more and maybe you’ll see a trophy bull or have a “guide” drive his ATV out to your kill and drag that elk to the butchering shed.

But once hunting season is over, the phone calls start. “Come get your damned elk off my fields,” seems the general sentiment.

A few years ago, the Division of Wildlife offered over-the-counter cow elk licenses in a successful effort to control elk herds in northwest Colorado, and now some of those herds are close to desired population levels.

But elk hunters have a success rate of only 25 percent against an animal that is remarkably resilient and adaptive.

Hunting might not be the best management tool, but as Winston Churchill once remarked about democracy, it beats any other method that’s been tried.

However, bumping up licenses to increase harvest often means more hunters crowding public lands where they don’t have to shell out thousands of dollars to chase an animal owned by the public.

Simply adding more licenses isn’t the complete answer.

There has to be more access to the places elk hide when hunting pressure mounts, and in many places those hideouts are private land.

But how do you convince a rancher to open his land to the public?

That’s the money question, since every rancher likely has a horror story (or 10) of the damage done by thoughtless hunters.

The conflicts aren’t new, nor are complaints the DOW isn’t doing enough.

But what is enough, and how is it accomplished?

In a recent e-mail to department employees, DOW Director Tom Remington noted, “We must find a way collectively to better manage elk populations and the conflicts they create.”

Remington isn’t addressing only DOW employees. He’s asking ranchers, landowners, hunters, non-hunters and wildlife lovers across the state to help solve this challenge.

With the state wildlife commission embarking on the next five-year season structure, this is the time to share your ideas.


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