At Saturday's town hall meeting between Colorado Division of Wildlife officials and local residents, there were more angry questions than compliments.
State Rep. Al White, R-Hayden, called for the meeting at the American Legion Post No. 62 in Craig because he said residents seemed to be more and more unhappy with DOW operations.
The audience of about 70, consisting mostly of local ranchers, had several concerns, including changes to the private land hunting voucher program, a seeming lack of follow-through for prosecuting trespassers, animal damage to crops and other property, and public health concerns with wildlife inside city limits.
At times, local ranchers became noticeably flustered as they asked the panel of DOW officers why they hadn't addressed some of the same concerns ranchers have had for years.
The DOW panel - consisting of Director Tom Remington, Wildlife Commissioner Roy McAnally, Northwest Regional Manager Ron Velarde and Area Wildlife Manager Bill deVergie - also appeared uneasy during some questions.
The statement that received the loudest applause, however, was an appeal for civility.
"These conversations we wouldn't have had 50 years ago," Moffat County resident Harry Peroulis said. "Now we're looking at each other as adversaries.
"Nothing has changed, but we have outside influences changing the way we see each other. Defend us no matter what, and we'll be there to support you."
Ranchers, by planting crops, building reservoirs and tending to the land, create beneficial habitats for wildlife, Peroulis said. They are not the backwards animal-killers that some on the Front Range make them out to be, and they are not the enemies of conservationists, he added.
At the same time, the excess of animals in Northwest Colorado makes it difficult for ranchers to earn enough for their livelihood, he said.
"We're ranching to ranch," Peroulis said. "We're not ranching to have deer and elk eat half our crops. I don't want to take anything away from hunters. We're creating a wonderful land for these animals. You need to communicate that to people on the other side of the mountain every time they vote against" additional hunting seasons.
During the meeting, Remington said residents could ask about anything, with one exception.
Officials said they could not answer any questions about two Moffat County ranchers, Rodney Culverwell and Kenneth Wolgram, who recently were charged with suspected poaching crimes.
The two men allegedly killed elk that were on their property during the winter.
Colorado Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, said if the DOW had been better prepared to help people experiencing crop loss and property damage this winter, ranchers might not have felt forced to take other steps that may or may not be outside the law.
"It is a property rights issue," he said. "They're feeding those animals basically all year long. Those animals are eating their livelihood."
DOW officials said they did everything in their power to help ranchers suffering from property loss and wildlife intrusion this winter.
The DOW offers fencing materials to protect crops and will issue special kill permits to shoot animals that will not leave private property.
"We give a kill permit just about anytime it is asked for," deVergie said. "The turnaround on most of those has been about five to seven days."
Locals reacted skeptically to deVergie's comments and said, in their experience, it was difficult to attain kill permits quickly and that fencing materials often amounted to spools of wire and a few boards.
More than two ranchers said they never were given enough fencing material to protect their crops, and one man said the DOW doesn't have enough money to pay for all the alfalfa he grows that is eaten by wildlife.
Most in the audience related the problems from wildlife damage to overgrown animal populations in the area.
One local woman said animal population numbers also drive wildlife inside city limits, which could cause a public health concern among other issues.
John Broderick, DOW northwest region senior terrestrial biologist, said the DOW monitors all diseases within wildlife herds and would be the first agency to announce there was a health risk.
"We haven't seen that relationship (between animal and human health concerns) yet," he said.
Craig Mayor Don Jones, who attended the meeting, said he also is concerned about animals in the city. He and other city officials have met with the DOW many times.
"I think it's fair to say, as of this winter, we had 250 to 300 resident deer in the city of Craig," he said. "At some point, we're going to have a serious accident in Craig, and it's going to hurt somebody. We need to somehow thin this population out."
Rifle hunting isn't realistic within city limits, the mayor added, and bow hunting doesn't kill an animal straightaway, which also can cause problems.
Jones recommended having the DOW or someone else herd the animals and transport them to another place.
"But the DOW won't let us do that because the animals might have diseases," he said.
DOW officials at the meeting said they would find a way to do something about local animal populations, but those in the audience would need to acknowledge that some in the community would oppose removing the wildlife.
"We've got another faction of people that love to see the deer walk in front of their door everyday," deVergie said. "It's become a very confusing and difficult situation to have."
DOW officials said they were doing their best to reduce wildlife populations in Northwest Colorado, which would keep animals off private land.
A graph handed out by DOW wildlife officers at the meeting showed the Bear's Ears elk herd population has declined by almost half since 2001, from an estimated 35,000 to about 19,000.
One last point
Before closing the meeting, Taylor thanked the DOW officials that appeared Saturday. They and their agency are important to Northwest Colorado, he said.
Jones also wanted to thank the DOW - and some of the panel members specifically - for allocating more funding to the sportsman's information specialist position at the Moffat County Visitor Center.
Taylor, though, said he could not leave the meeting without addressing one thing he said was "the most important" to him.
"I think it is totally unacceptable that I've had ranchers come up to me, throughout my years with the Legislature, and in recent years, and say they're intimidated by the DOW," he said. "No citizen of Colorado, no taxpayer of Colorado, no rancher, resident or person in Colorado should ever be intimidated by any state agency."
Taylor added he asks those residents that fear the DOW to testify in front of Congress, but each time they decline for fear of retaliation.
"For a long time, I seemed to be the lone voice in the wilderness about this," Taylor said. "But, I'll tell you, there are more legislators coming into the Legislature now that are really concerned with some of these things."
Taylor's comments drew a loud applause from the audience.
Remington said he did not know residents felt that way about his agency.
"We do not get those comments," he said. "It's hard to respond to a problem that hasn't been brought to our attention. I think in some respects, every law enforcement agency feels that."
That said, Remington added he would not tolerate any strong-arm tactics from the DOW.
"We certainly do not condone it," he said. "We will not tolerate it if and when it happens."