Poaching case to challenge DOW

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Trial at a glance

• Moffat County rancher Rodney Culverwell, 41, is charged with 80 poaching crimes for allegedly killing 16 elk this winter.

• His defense attorney said Culverwell acted in defense of his property because the elk continually destroyed hay and fencing this winter.

• The 14th Judicial District Attorney's Office maintains Culverwell did not exhaust legal remedies before shooting elk.

• A 14-person jury panel was selected Monday, and included local residents who describes themselves as ranchers and hunters.

Opening arguments in Rodney Culverwell's trial suggested the case will look at whether the state did enough to protect the rancher's property from wildlife or if Culverwell unduly took the law into his own hands.

Culverwell, 41, a Moffat County rancher, is charged with 80 poaching crimes that stem from alleged incidents where elk damaged his crops and fencing this winter.

Specifically, he is charged with 16 counts of willful destruction of big game, a Class 5 felony; 16 counts of illegal possession of wildlife, a misdemeanor; 16 counts of hunting big game without a license, a misdemeanor; 16 counts of hunting out of season, a misdemeanor; and 16 counts of failure to dress wildlife, a misdemeanor.

Jeremy Snow, deputy district attorney for the 14th Judicial District Attorney's Office, said the evidence would show that Culverwell did not exhaust all avenues of help from the Colorado Division of Wildlife, which has different programs for wildlife damage.

"Instead of picking up his phone, Culverwell picked up his gun," Snow said.

Pamela Mackey, Culverwell's defense attorney, said that is not the truth.

"Well, there's lots of e-mails and phone calls," she said. "But, the only time the DOW showed up on Rodney Culverwell's property during that time was not to help, but to act as cops."

To defend his property, Mackey said Culverwell did shoot "some" elk, but not all 16 alleged by the District Attorney's Office. A ballistics expert will show, she added, that five of 10 bullets recovered from elk carcasses identified in the case were not fired by any weapon Culverwell owns or that was confiscated from his property.

The first witness called by the prosecution - and the only witness to testify Tuesday - spoke on both the material investigation of elk on and near Culverwell's roughly 20,000-acre ranch, and the DOW's actions after receiving support requests from Culverwell and his wife, Margaret.

Colorado Wildlife Officer Garett Watson helped conduct the first physical examinations of elk carcasses in the case, which included retrieving bullets from some of the animals.

He testified Tuesday that he examined eight dead elk on Feb. 11 - five on Culverwell's property and three on the other side of U.S. Highway 40 - after receiving a report that dead elk were visible from the highway.

All eight elk appeared to have gunshot wounds that would have been sufficient to kill the animals, Watson said.

It seemed the animals had been shot within 48 hours of his examinations, he added, because the wounds were not swollen with infection, some were bleeding and the animals still were relatively warm.

Watson said it was his opinion that all eight elk died from gunshot wounds. He did not testify whether the bullets removed from some of the carcasses matched Culverwell's firearms.

Chief District Court Judge Michael O'Hara overruled Mackey's objection that Watson could testify as an expert to the cause of the animals' deaths.

Watson said he has a bachelor's degree in wildlife biology from Colorado State University, as well as law enforcement training, DOW training and has completed more than 100 examples of similar fieldwork.

Watson also testified that there are no other homes or hayfields within one to two miles of where the elk were found, and there was no evidence they were moved.

Mackey's cross-examination focused more on the Culverwells' interaction with DOW officers, including Watson, shortly before the agency's investigation.

Margaret first e-mailed Watson asking for help with wildlife damage Feb. 2, Watson and Mackey agreed. Watson responded that the DOW could provide wood cattle panels to put on their fences and help keep out wildlife.

According to Watson's testimony, he learned on Feb. 9 that the Culverwells purchased their own wood paneling, which Mackey said cost more than $1,000.

Between the two dates, Watson said he and the Culverwells communicated primarily by e-mail at the couple's request. There were two instances when Watson said he didn't receive their e-mail until two days after they sent it because he was working in the field and had not been in his office.

The Culverwells did not have a home phone at the time, and Watson said that made it more difficult to communicate. Many Northwest Colorado residents made requests to the DOW at that time, he said, which kept him out of the office.

"I'm a field guy," Watson said. "I've got to decide whether I'm actively doing those tons of calls I'm getting or sitting at my computer waiting for (the Culverwells) to respond."

Watson did not finish testifying by the 5 p.m. recess Tuesday.

The trial is scheduled to resume at 8:30 a.m. today.

Collin Smith can be reached at 875-1794 or cesmith@craigdailypress.com

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