Bill de Vergie is committed to doing what he can to bridge the gap between the Colorado Division of Wildlife and local landowners, including the farmers and ranchers who have been critical of regional wildlife policy.
"In the next seven to nine months, I'm going to do everything I can to strengthen the relations and the communication with landowners," de Vergie said. "And I'm committed to doing that."
However, de Vergie, DOW area wildlife manager for the Meeker office, also said he knows there are many landowners who are not angry with the DOW. They appreciate the job done by his officers - who each are responsible for about 1,000 square miles - and understand the DOW's mission, he said.
In response to Rodney Culverwell's trial, de Vergie said Culverwell's was a specific incident, one that is not common and not similar to other landowners.
In his 17 years with the DOW, de Vergie could remember "maybe one" other case when officers found as many dead animals on someone's property.
Culverwell recently was convicted in Moffat County District Court of four class 5 felonies and 12 misdemeanors relating to the deaths of four elk found on his property. His defense called into question whether landowners should be allowed to kill wildlife when animals eat their crops and destroy property.
Culverwell pleaded not guilty to all charges based on his right to defend his property, himself and his family. Several local landowners testified on Culverwell's behalf, claiming similar problems with wildlife eating their crops and ineffectual responses from the DOW.
Other landowners appeared in the courtroom, but would not say on the record why.
It's in the relationships
Landowner frustration with the DOW runs deep, Roy McAnally said.
McAnally has lived in Moffat County since 1974. During that time, he raised a family, started a business and recently was named to the Colorado Wildlife Commission, a board that governs the DOW.
"I've had dealings with the Division of Wildlife most of my life," McAnally said. "Overall, I've found those dealings to be very helpful. Having said that : people here have been frustrated with the DOW for as long as there has been a DOW, probably. Consequently, I've not totally understood the root of it."
The animosity is something DOW officials and local landowners must put aside, DOW spokesman Randy Hampton said. He added that it frustrates him to see good officers vilified after trying their best.
Wildlife officers "work very hard, and they do all they can," he said. "This was a tough winter. We haven't seen a winter like this in 10 years. We're doing the best we can to try and have some foresight, but we're also working with the very limited budget we have."
Being angry with wildlife officers does nothing to help Moffat County, Hampton said.
"What I don't want to see happen : is all this frustration rise up against the officers on the ground," he said. "I would hope people could start to bring officers into the community, because that's how we can solve some of these issues."
If DOW officers don't feel safe for themselves and their families, they leave the area, Hampton said. That makes it near impossible to keep seasoned officers who know local people and issues in Northwest Colorado.
"There is part of this that is our responsibility," Hampton added. "We need to take care of our part. We've got another winter coming and not a lot of time to prepare."
If the next winter is anything like the last one, de Vergie said his office has learned from its mistakes last year.
"Obviously, if we have a winter similar to the one last year, our reaction time to have tools and materials to landowners is going to have to be faster," de Vergie said.
The DOW has a store of wooden panels in place for landowners that might need fencing help, he said. His officers also have delivered permanent fencing to "dozens" of local residents.
The DOW didn't leave Moffat County to its own devices last year, either, Hampton said. With the exception of one large damage claim from a sunflower farm in southwest Colorado, the DOW Meeker office paid out more than twice the amount of game damage reimbursement than any of the other 17 DOW offices around the state.
It's in the numbers
The underlying issue, however, is that local landowners think there are too many elk, deer and antelope.
Culverwell testified, and other landowners have said the problem with DOW game management is that there are too many animals roaming Moffat County.
If more animals were hunted each year, or killed or moved by other means, then locals wouldn't have wildlife problems, they said. Their statements contended the DOW has not done its mandated job to manage wildlife effectively.
At its Sept. 11 meeting in Steamboat Springs, the Wildlife Commission heard a report from Jamin Grigg, DOW terrestrial biologist for the Craig area, about the Division's herd management strategy and situation in the Yampa Valley.
Grigg told the Commission that the DOW's target elk population for the Bear's Ears herd in the Yampa Valley is about 16,000 elk.
Moffat County landowners have made it clear they want fewer elk here, Broderick said. The DOW cannot remove elk from the region, though, because other people want the wildlife to stay and even increase because of the tourism it brings.
Broderick said the DOW believes 16,000 elk is the meeting point for those interests.
"We want (an elk population) that deals with the problems of landowners and creates hunting opportunities," Broderick said. "The Division heard the message from the landowners. We don't have blinders on."
Grigg told the Wildlife Commission it is "obvious" the DOW did not know the right number of elk from about 1998 to 2002, but since then the DOW has admitted its mistake, and the agency has actively driven the population down.
"We're aware of the issues, and we're doing everything we can," Grigg said. "We have brought that population down. We're still harvesting at a rate that could bring this population down significantly."
Grigg told the Wildlife Commission his agency expects the Bear's Ears herd to be reduced to the target of about 16,000 elk after this hunting season.
If accurate, the estimated number of elk would be reduced by more than half since 2001.
Broderick and Grigg said it would be easier to reduce elk populations if landowners, farmers and ranchers, cooperated with that goal.
Female elk need to hunted to effectively reduce populations, but landowners typically only let bull hunters on their property, they said.
If they let hunters on to shoot females, Broderick said, it would drive away the elk before bull season, and landowners make more money charging hunters for the right to kill a trophy animal.
"The economic interest is in hunting bulls," he said. "We provide opportunity for private land hunts. There are thousands and thousands of private land hunting licenses. The real reason some of those go unsold is (landowners) preserve their bull hunting at the expense of (female) hunters."
Change is in the works
Hampton said some state legislators have approached DOW officials with ideas for changing game damage policies.
The local wildlife commissioner also believes the policies need to be changed and "updated" for current issues.
"There's a wide range of things we need to look at," McAnally said, specifically mentioning the regulation that no landowner who charges hunters more than $100 each to enter their land can receive game damage reimbursement.
"In today's market, $100 is pretty low," McAnally said. "I don't know anyone that charges $100 a hunter."
He also said DOW officers are so limited as to who they are allowed to give certain kinds of help, they often break the law to aid a resident.
"Strictly speaking, the DOW has gone over and above to help people," McAnally said. "There need to be provisions that allow that."
Collin Smith can be reached at 875-1794 or firstname.lastname@example.org