At a glance
• Rodney Culverwell, 41, was sentenced Tuesday to 60 days in Moffat County Jail, $16,440 in fines and fees, 196 days of community service and two years' probation.
• He was convicted by a jury in September for illegally killing four elk on his property last winter, which amounted to the following 15 charges:
- four counts of willful destruction of big game, a class 5 felony
- four counts of illegal possession of wildlife, a misdemeanor
- three counts of hunting without a license, a misdemeanor
- four counts of hunting out of season, a misdemeanor.
• The judge dismissed sentences for the 11 misdemeanor convictions on the basis that Culverwell only committed one unlawful act in the death of each elk.
Rodney Culverwell, a 41-year-old Moffat County rancher, was sentenced Tuesday for four felony convictions related to the deaths of four elk on his property last winter.
The sentence includes 60 days in County Jail, $16,440 in total fines, 196 days of community service and two years' probation.
Culverwell will be allowed work release from jail to work on his ranch while incarcerated.
The charges stemmed from a Colorado Division of Wildlife investigation last winter, when officers reported finding 18 dead elk on the rancher's land. Culverwell went to trial for the deaths of 16 of those elk and was convicted in the cases of four.
Pamela Mackey, Culverwell's defense attorney, said each of the three elk Culverwell admitted he shot were mercy killings. Two of the elk were starving and could become dangerous, she said, and the third accidentally was shot and put down.
Mackey said it was unfortunate the court did not allow the jury to consider a "choice of evils defense," which would have allowed jurors a legal option for acquitting Culverwell in the deaths of those elk.
Mackey added that two jurors in the case "reached out to her" after the trial and confirmed they might have changed their finding if they knew a person could be within their rights for putting a suffering animal out of its misery.
She asked the court to show leniency in its sentencing because of the specific facts in the case and evidence presented on Culverwell's behalf showing he has good character and good standing in the community.
O'Hara said he received "many, many" letters for the defendant from local residents and believed him to be "a man of good character."
"But, the bottom line is, Mr. Culverwell stands before me convicted," O'Hara said.
The judge added that Culverwell's situation could have turned out differently if he cooperated more with the DOW. The notion DOW officers did not return phone calls for help is inaccurate, he said.
However, O'Hara added, he does not agree with the idea that Culverwell has a disregard for wildlife.
O'Hara also threw out sentences for 11 misdemeanor convictions on the basis that the defendant only committed one crime against each animal. Sentencing Culverwell for three or four crimes when the only criminal act was "pulling the trigger," O'Hara said, would be duplicitous.
He concluded that the defense could appeal the convictions and his decision to not allow the choice of evils defense for mercy killings, if the defense chose. In that case, O'Hara will order a stay of execution on Culverwell's sentence until the appeal is heard.
About 50 people watched Culverwell's sentencing, the majority of whom sat behind the defense table in support of the local rancher.
Afterward, two of them expressed dismay at the judge's decisions.
Robert Dunn, of Savery, Wyo., said it is "ridiculous" to sentence a man to jail for killing four elk, especially when the DOW has license to kill hundreds for fears of chronic wasting disease.
"We're talking about 60 days in jail and $16,000 for four starving elk," he said.
Dunn also worried that Culverwell will not be able to keep up with work on his ranch this winter, even with work release from jail.
"When you are calving cattle, it's a 24-hour-a-day deal," Dunn said.
Dick Becker, who has owned a ranch near Maybell for eight years and ranched on the Eastern Plains for 15 years before that, said the DOW should be sued or investigated for the problems it allowed to continue during the course of last winter.
He said there were at least six starving elk that died on his property during that time, and another herd of 300 antelope that died nearby.
"I think the DOW needs to be sued : for criminal acts of not protecting the wildlife," Becker said. "That's their job, and I saw nobody take any action to help the animals out there.
"This is a travesty of justice to set a precedent for a rancher when the DOW is not doing their job."
Collin Smith can be reached at 875-1794 or firstname.lastname@example.org