Two Northwest Colorado ranchers, apparently frustrated by foraging elk eating hay intended for livestock, now face thousands of dollars in fines and multiple felony charges for allegedly killing 34 elk.
Rodney Heath Culverwell, 41, and Kenneth Wolgram, 43, have been charged with 18 and 16 felony counts, respectively, of willful destruction of wildlife. Each was charged additionally in Moffat County District Court on Tuesday with 18 and 16 respective misdemeanor counts of illegal possession of wildlife. If convicted, each felony count carries a sentence of up to two years in prison and a $100,000 fine.
Officers of the Colorado Division of Wildlife said they found the dead elk on property owned by Culverwell, listed as Rio Ro Mo Land Company, and at Wolgram's property. Both are located about 15 miles west of Craig. DOW spokesman Randy Hampton said officers completed a six-week investigation into the shootings and made the charges.
"We don't typically see that level of charges," Hampton said. "This is a significant case."
According to a search warrant affidavit, officers began investigating Culverwell's property Jan. 28 after two passersby notified the DOW they saw three dead elk - a bull, a cow and a calf - in the pasture.
Months earlier, on June 12, 2007, Culverwell had e-mailed a DOW officer about concerns of elk eating cattle feed and asking permission to kill the wildlife.
"If I have not heard from you within 2 weeks I will assume that you do not care and these matters must be taken care of by other means," Culverwell wrote, according to the affidavit.
Officers said they found a stack of elk carcasses in Culverwell's yard and noticed a cab full of spent, small-caliber, rifle casings in Culverwell's vehicle after executing a search warrant Feb. 22. The DOW said it began investigating Wolgram on Feb. 18 after finding elk carcasses near his property north of U.S. Highway 40. When questioned by wildlife officers, Wolgram denied shooting the animals, saying he didn't own a shotgun, according to an affidavit obtained by the Craig Daily Press. Officers found shotgun shells, ammunition, 13 elk carcasses, two coyotes, 63 packages of noncommercial meat and several weapons, the Daily Press reported.
A brutal winter
A brutal winter in Northwest Colorado prompting elk to venture into lower elevations to find food has been an ongoing issue for ranchers, longtime rancher Darryl Steele said Wednesday.
Steele, who runs 200 head of cattle west of Craig, near Maybell, said elk herds this winter have mixed in with the cattle, causing him significant losses of feed. Northwest Colorado boasts the nation's second largest migratory elk herds, Hampton said, reaching 22,000 strong last year.
Hampton said the DOW would like to reduce the Bears Ears herd size to 11,000 to 15,000, and the agency issued thousands more hunting licenses since 2000 for that reason.
"The elk are coming in by the hundreds," Steele said. "If a guy has only enough hay to winter his cows, then it's a pretty tough case. As a rancher and a farmer, you don't know what to do. If you can't get help, it's much more frustrating."
Steele said he was subsidized by the DOW for 18 tons of hay, but he figures he lost 37 tons of feed to elk. Steele said he's not so much concerned with elk eating the hay as elk pushing around cattle and causing them to lose their unborn calves.
Hampton said ranchers who receive less than $100 in payments from hunters to hunt wildlife on their property can receive subsidies to mitigate problems caused by wildlife. The agency has established "baiting areas" or feed zones for elk in an attempt to minimize damages to ranchers' feed stocks.
Hampton added it's common for landowners in Northwest Colorado to charge thousands of dollars per hunter for rights to hunt on private property. He said he couldn't say whether Wolgram or Culverwell charge for hunting rights or whether they had any former wildlife violations. Neither Wolgram nor Culverwell returned calls for comment Wednesday.
Hampton said ranchers can get help from the DOW with cracker shells or noisy rounds that are shot out of shotguns to scare off elk. The agency also offers fencing or reimburses ranchers with cash for their losses, if they qualify for the programs. He said these options were explained during a public meeting in Maybell last month.
"I can tell you the DOW has spent thousands and thousands of dollars in reimbursing ranchers for losses this winter," Hampton said. "This year, because of the nature of winter, we've dealt with quite a few situations."