There are two lessons the Colorado Division of Wildlife should learn from Rodney Culverwell's trial.
First, the agency must realize at this point that its investigation was poor and not ready for trial.
Officers threw away animal carcasses before locating ballistics evidence inside. They did not search Culverwell's house for additional firearms, and they made a tape recording of the defendant that damaged their credibility more than it helped the prosecution.
The DOW must build better cases against suspects in the future. That is not what we see as most important, however.
The better lesson for the agency to take away, in our opinion, is that their services and procedures did not work last winter. What is clear, after nine days of trial, is that the DOW's game management policies are broken.
Although it was Culverwell's face on the front page of the paper, he was never alone in that courtroom. Local farmers and ranchers here seem painfully aware of the costs for maintaining the wildlife herds that are the pride of Moffat County.
Hunting tourism is important to this county, but it doesn't exist just because we're lucky. It's a land the ranchers and farmers in this country created, and the elk are here in such great numbers because of their labor, their toil.
More elk would mean more hunters, and that's good for tourism, which is good for all of us, in a trickle-down economics kind of way.
But, too many elk mean the people who depend on the land for their livelihood suffer.
So, someone has to manage herd sizes, and the only entity with the resources and time to do that is the government.
We have to depend on the DOW, but it has to become an agency we can depend on.
When it is a bad winter and starving animals are dying in people's yards, the DOW's response can no longer be business as usual. There was a lot of talk during the trial about what the DOW is capable of. One wildlife officer testified he didn't offer kill permits to the Culverwells in part because he doesn't have the clearance to approve that. The same officer seemed to have no problem recruiting a search party of 18-plus officers to descend on the Rio Ro Mo Ranch, a party that included agents from the Glenwood Springs and Denver offices.
There is a discrepancy there between what the officer claims is impossible and what apparently is possible.
That said, the DOW is not an evil agency. People who think DOW agents are out there simply to punish people are foolish.
The DOW is not excited Culverwell was found guilty.
Are agents glad that wildlife protections were upheld? Yes. They are, after all, the very principled and dedicated officers we want in that position.
It was not, however, their career goal to see a man turned into a public spectacle and then convicted of multiple felonies. People have to stop making every controversy into an "us against the world" grudge match. The same wildlife officer who spearheaded the investigation also offered several times to come out to the Culverwells' ranch and help chase elk and hang cattle panels but was refused each time. Culverwell testified he wasn't interested in help from the DOW unless it meant he could shoot animals, the only action he felt would work.
Culverwell may have been right, but landowners need to admit they don't always make an honest effort to cooperate. They hold grudges, distrust people and don't like to ask for help. There are reasons for all that, maybe good reasons, but it seems there are plenty of lessons to go around.
The DOW has good reasons for its policies, too. The state Legislature has tied Division hands in many cases and also charged the DOW with a job too big to be entirely possible.
It's hard to be perfect when faced with the impossible, but an intelligent plan would make room for options. It seems options are exactly what the DOW's management policies lack; we're not sure at what level that problem was created - in the Legislature, by the Wildlife Commission or through the DOW's own rulemaking process - but it must be fixed. Right now, the system doesn't work. Now, the DOW and others must recognize that and act.