The great adventure
Retired regional wildlife manager Ron Velarde reflects with pride on his long career
What does a person think about after 47 years as a game warden for what is now Colorado Parks and Wildlife?
And how are those years summarized? What memories stand out after nearly 50 years with an agency recognized as one of the leaders in wildlife management?
On June 30, Ron Velarde quietly closed the door on his 47 years with CPW, the final 17 years as regional wildlife manager for the Northwest Region.
A few days later he sat down to talk about his nearly half-century with an agency that he helped usher into the modern era of science-based wildlife management.
It came almost as a shock to see Velarde, now 70, out of his Parks and Wildlife uniform. Although he was wearing his familiar western boots and sharp-creased blue jeans, instead of his usual CPW khaki shirt, he wore a dark-blue T-shirt bearing the logo of Colorado Wildlife Employees Protective Association.
When told of this, he laughed, a big rolling laugh and said, “Now I have to decide what to wear every day.”
His hair now is more salt than pepper and the years working outdoors have brought a few new features to his rugged face, but he maintains the erect posture and defined bearing of a man proud of his job, proud of his agency and proud of his Hispanic heritage.
Velarde’s family ties run deep into the dry lands of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, where his ancestors arrived shortly after the end of the U.S.-Mexican War in 1848.
His mother was born in San Luis, Colorado’s oldest continuously occupied community, while his father’s heritage goes back to settlements named Velarde in Spain and Italy.
Today, the Velardes still have a home ranch near Gardner in the Huerfano Valley dating from 1852 and some of his family are living nearby in Walsenberg and the San Luis Valley.
“There’s also a ranch at Pass Creek (north of La Veta Pass) that isn’t that old, maybe only 150 years,” says Velarde, who reads voraciously about the Hispanic and Native American cultures in southern Colorado. “I love going back to the Gardner country, the Huerfano Valley and the San Luis Valley. There’s something about that area that’s really special.”
Velarde’s father, Anthony, spent more than 20 years as the sheriff of Huerfano County. Through his dad, Ron got to know F. Frank Cordoba, the local game warden.
“He was the only Hispanic game warden in the state, so he was sort of a role model, I guess, and every once-in-a-while I got to go with him,” Velarde said. “Ever since I was little, I’ve wanted to be a game warden.”
In 1970, after graduating Colorado State University (“I was on the five-year program,” he laughed), Velarde and former Division of Wildlife biologist John Torres joined Cordoba as the state’s second and third Hispanic game wardens in what then was the Colorado Department of Game, Fish and Parks.
Velarde’s first station was in the San Luis District in Costilla County, where he developed his reputation as a fair, yet tough, wildlife law officer.
“The people in the San Luis Valley didn’t like two things: one is the government, and there also is not a lot of fondness for game wardens,” Velarde said.
He soon discovered he was intrigued by law enforcement, a side of the job that tests many young wildlife officers.
“You know, I really love the biology part of this job but I love the law enforcement part as well,” he said. “I was the first wildlife officer stationed in Costilla County and I got a good reception from the people in Blanca and Fort Garland.”
In 1989, both his Hispanic roots and his law credential were tested.
On March 6 of that year, 257 state and federal wildlife law officers swept through southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, including Costilla County, ending a 2½-year undercover poaching investigation. In the end, 110 people faced a wide range charges for illegally killing wildlife.
Velarde, who by this time was the area supervisor at the Division of Wildlife office in Pueblo, says that nearly 30 years later there still are wounds that haven’t healed.
“It was pretty tough,” recalled Velarde, shaking his head at the memory of name-calling and recriminations he faced. “Being Hispanic worked both ways. I respected those people for who they were, but I didn’t respect it if they killed a deer or elk out of season.”
Many of the people who were arrested weren’t simply subsistence hunters, popping a deer for some winter meat, Velarde said. Reports at the time revealed some were professional poachers, killing elk, deer, bears and eagles, while others used wildlife sales to cover other illegal activity.
“For the people who were doing it for years and years and were actually commercializing it, I have no sympathy at all,” he said. “None, zero, because they weren’t just poaching deer and elk and killing eagles. They were into drugs, they were into theft, and stealing cars and stuff.”
Still, he feels some sympathy for innocent people who were impacted by the wave of illegal activity.
“For those groups, for what you might the collateral damage, I feel bad for those guys,” he said. “If I ever caught one of those guys poaching who were subsistence living, I’d feel bad for them but I’d write them a ticket and tell them to go to court, where the judge might give them a short fine.”
“But some of those guys were driving brand new Ford or Chevy pickups and they try to tell me they need the meat? I’m not buying that.”
POLITICS CHANGED WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT
The poaching raid and the subsequent publicity may have been Velarde’s initial introduction to the role politics was beginning to play in wildlife management.
Today’s observers of wildlife management in Colorado might be surprised that 40 years ago, most wildlife policy decisions were made away from the public eye. Not in secrecy, but simply because few people questioned the wisdom of game wardens, biologists or wildlife commissioners to make the right decision.
That’s changed over the years, thanks largely to such contentious issues as the spring bear hunt, the trapping ban, dealing with an expanding elk herd, the impacts of energy development and a booming human population. Balancing these pressures and staying true to the agency’s mission brings more focus on the agency and the Colorado Wildlife Commission.
“I would say the biggest change that’s occurred in wildlife management is the politics that’s associated with it,” said Velarde without hesitation. “And in some situations, and this is a shame, politics will trump wildlife management.”
Over the years, Velarde has mentored many young and not-so-young wildlife professionals, and he’s consistent in his advice to them.
“I remind them that it would be so simple just to say, ‘I’m going to win all the time’, but you have to learn to adapt and learn to compromise,” he said. “If you don’t, you’re won’t be able to sleep at night.
“You have to be able to say, ‘OK, how can I make it so that we’re still going to have wildlife habitat?’”
He discovered, after thousands of hours in public hearings, sportsmen roundtables and meetings with local, state and federal politicians, that compromise and agreement only mean something when personal ethics are upheld.
“To me, that’s important. I’m not going to do anything that violates my morals and ethics,” he says, adamantly. “So how can I work within the system we have presently to make it better for wildlife or our constituents?”
A FAMILY MAN
It’s likely he shared most of these concerns with his wife Marian, who in the 49 years they’ve been together always preferred staying in the background, raising their four children as Ron took the heat as well as the praise.
“She’s been an angel,” he says with no hesitation. “I owe it to her, she’s put up with me for 49 years and for my whole career.”
But about 18 months ago the Velardes seriously began discussing his retirement, a venture to which he initially gave little thought but now has embraced.
“I never even thought about retiring, it was the furthest thing from my mind,” he says with open honesty. “I love my job and I love the people I work with, but I wanted to retire while I’m healthy and still active.”
Velarde also gave thanks to his own mentors, including Russell George, the highly respected former State Legislator and former director of the Division of Wildlife (2000-2004), for helping him advance his management philosophies.
“It’s like, what can I do that will benefit wildlife, will benefit our constituents, make for the long-term viability of the agency and still work with these various factors? That’s what you have to look at,” he said. “That’s really where I’m coming from and where the agency is coming from, from the director on down.”