Sen. Al White's game damage bill meets resistance

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— What's become a perennial battle over wildlife management between sportsmen and landowners spilled over into the Colorado Legislature again this year with Sen. Al White's bill to increase payments for game damage to crops and hay fields.

White, R-Hayden, introduced Senate Bill 24 at the request of landowners who say the $1 million the Colorado Division of Wildlife paid out to farmers and ranchers last year doesn't begin to cover the actual damage.

"I can tell you that is a drop in the bucket from the actual damage that is taking place out there," said Troy Bredenkamp, the Colorado Farm Bureau's executive vice president.

After two hearings in the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, however, the bill looks significantly different from the one that was introduced. The revised bill currently is awaiting another hearing in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Out is any reference to lifting the $100 cap that a farmer or rancher can charge for access to private land and still quality for game damage payments. The original bill would have increased the cap to $2,500.

Also out is a provision that game damage payments be equal to 50 percent on the annual gross income from the property.

DOW Director Tom Remington was among those opposed to the higher damage payments. He said Colorado already has the most liberal policy of the 10 states that compensate landowners for game damage.

"If a landowner derives an economic return from publically held resources they ought to be responsible for in part supporting the wildlife resource that supports them," Remington said. "There's a lot of money floating around out there in commercial hunting."

In the revised bill is a new timeline for the Division of Wildlife to respond to game damage complaints and payment of damage claims.

The DOW would have to respond to the initial damage complaint within 48 hours and consult with the landowner within five business days. The DOW then would have 15 days to provide damage prevention materials if requested.

"We shot pretty high in terms of what we were asking for," Bredenkamp admitted. "But the overarching outstanding issue remains. We have a lot of the state's wildlife and a lot of damage to agriculture. We wanted to develop a process that helps us better handle and manage the situation."

Bredenkamp said some estimates show as much as 78 percent of the state's wildlife living on private land.

The Colorado Wildlife Federation and representatives of other hunting and fishing groups said the higher limit would price many hunters out of their sport. And even though the controversial payment provisions were removed, the sportsmen's groups still are opposed to SB 24.

"There is still no cap on the ultimate exposure sportsmen have through their license dollars to paying for what amounts to an insurance policy," said Wildlife Federation Executive Director Suzanne O'Neill. "At the end of the day, we need some sort of a cap on this whole game damage program."

Federation board member Kent Ingram, who also is co-chairman of the Sportsman's Advisory Group to the DOW, said hunting license revenue actually paid for almost $2 million to farmers and ranchers last year.

"In addition to the $1 million in game damage, we're paying $600,000 a year for prevention materials issues through the habitat protection program," Ingram said. "And now we're hearing that sportsmen are having to pay for losses when a lion or bear takes down livestock that is grazing on public lands. That's another $318,000."

While the issue of fairness is paramount to both groups, the lack of communication between them was apparent at both hearings.

Remington and the sportsmen complained that White and the landowners did not consult with them in writing the original bill.

"We are calling foul on the process," Remington said at the first hearing last month, adding that "the issue never was brought forward" during quarterly roundtables last year.

Another Wildlife Federation representative, John Smeltzer, also bemoaned the lack of collaboration.

"Colorado has established a solid platform upon which collaboration is the expected norm to resolve these issues," Smeltzer said. "Systems are in place to resolve this. For wildlife to continue to prosper, agriculture and conservation need to meet collaboratively."

Ingram said White's original bill wasn't about the prevention damage as much as it was about reducing hunter opportunities by increasing the access fee.

"The landowner controls access and has a choice," Ingram said. "He can open for hunting or claim damages."

Among those testifying for White's original bill were Routt County rancher Ron Nereson, a Farm Bureau board member, Delta County rancher Hugh Sanburg, who sits on the Western Slope agriculture roundtable, Terry Fankhauser of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association and Margy Christiansen, a lobbyist for outfitters and elk breeders.

"This is an issue of who feeds the wildlife," Christiansen said. "These (landowner) people feed, nurture and protect the wildlife."

Nereson and Sanburg said game damage, especially from elk in Northwest Colorado, could put a rancher out of business.

"The cost of feeding wildlife is borne by the landowner, and many are not being properly compensated," Nereson said.

Sanburg added: "Farmers and ranchers are willing to sustain these animals. However, when wildlife impacts the ability of that rancher or farmer to be productive, it is out of balance, and that balance needs to be restored."

Fankhauser said it was not the intent of landowners to "blindside anyone" with White's bill.

"For us it's a process issue," he said. "We are willing to go back to the drawing board to find some middle ground that ultimately will serve everyone's best interest."

Two Western Slope Democrats on the Agriculture Committee also chided the landowners for not collaborating with the hunters in the first place.

"I appreciate everyone working hard to come together," said Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne. "But we wouldn't have been in this spot if folks had come together from Day 1 Sportsmen and landowners working together benefits Colorado and wildlife as a whole."

Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, agreed, saying the committee had "a lot of heartburn and unnecessary focus on issues that could have been settled outside."

Bredenkamp said the Farm Bureau has not had much success in negotiating some issues with the hunting groups, but he said there would be further discussions about how to prevent game damage in the future.

White, who spends the majority of his time working on the budget with the Joint Budget Committee, acknowledged the difficulty in bringing the two groups together.

"I'm going to take the Farm Bureau off my Christmas list for giving me this bill," he said.

No date has been set for the appropriations hearing on White's bill.

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