Big Game, Big Money

Damage done by Colorado's wild pets costs the state close to a million bucks a year.

It was back in July 2000 when Pat Dobiash, who watched the herd for the Henrys, first noticed that one of the alpacas was missing. A full month passed before Dobiash found the animal, a young female: On August 26, he stumbled across its decomposing remains on a small island in the Animas River, which bordered the ranch.

The ranch itself sat about two miles north of the New Mexico border, southeast of Durango. The Henrys -- Madeline and Fred -- had been land-leasing the spread from a local owner. The couple lives in Wisconsin, and they're mainly into insurance. But after attending some alpaca shows several years ago, they decided to try their hands at raising the Peruvian llamas, too.

Alpaca owners like to talk about the soft, beautiful wool their animals produce. But there's actually little market for the cloth. It is very expensive, as are the alpacas themselves. Females with good bloodlines can fetch up to $50,000 each. Breeding sires of good stock have been known to sell for as much as $100,000. The high prices are the result of a self-imposed embargo that producers agreed to several years ago in order to limit the import of more animals.

Mike Gorman

Yet with the exception of a handful of generous tax breaks from the government, the alpaca market isn't particularly profitable. Most of the business is conducted internally, with owners buying, breeding and selling animals among themselves. The Henrys had jumped into this cliquish world with gusto, purchasing dozens of the expensive animals. By the time they moved their herd from Wisconsin to Colorado about five years ago, they owned close to 150 alpacas. They hired Dobiash to take care of the herd.

"When the Henrys moved them out here, I'm sure they never even considered the possibility of wildlife kills," Dobiash says. They should have. Although he couldn't prove it, Dobiash suspected that a mountain lion had done the deed that summer. Many of the big cats came off of the Southern Ute Indian reservation, which lay adjacent to the ranch, and used the river as a travel corridor. It was only a matter of time before one of them developed a taste for alpaca.

When Dobiash found the animal's scattered remains, he called the state Division of Wildlife's Durango office. That same day, a DOW inspector drove out to the ranch to investigate. While he said he sympathized with Dobiash, he added that there was nothing he could do: The Henrys clearly had a victim, but the culprit was unknown. Noting the value of the alpacas, the inspector told Dobiash he should consider building better fences -- perhaps with an electrical current running through them.

It's worth asking why a state agency gets involved in big-game/livestock clashes at all. Ranching alpacas in rural Colorado, just like raising corn or running cattle, is a high-stakes bet with nature. But a seventy-year-old state law declares that a handful of Colorado's natural predators -- bear and mountain lion, primarily, but also elk, antelope and deer -- are "owned" by the Division of Wildlife. That means the government is responsible for their behavior in the same way that a suburban pet owner is liable when his dog tears into the neighbor's cat.

Owning hungry lions and rambunctious bears has not been cheap. Last year the DOW wrote checks totaling just under $1 million for damage done by the state's wild pets. The money went not only to farmers and ranchers, but also to agricultural hobbyists and homeowners who were shocked to learn that they shared their ranchettes with inconsiderate carnivores.

Alpacas are not challenging prey. While llamas often are used to guard other livestock, an alpaca's main defense is running -- not a particularly useful skill for a penned animal. Having discovered this, the Henrys' lion was not finished. Two days after the DOW officer's visit, another animal was killed. This time Dobiash found the carcass right away; most of it had been eaten during the night.

On September 6, a third alpaca disappeared; its body was never found. But this time an investigator for the federal Wildlife Services, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that's the FBI of livestock crimes, discovered lion tracks and drag marks.

Unlike bears, which will skin their prey practically as clean as if a knife had been used, or coyotes, which tear at the underside of their quarry, "lions will bite on the backside of the neck and then drag and bury," says Hody Ewing, the Wildlife Services officer who investigated the alpaca killings. "And this was just a textbook lion kill."

Ewing filled out the proper paperwork, including the Henrys' claim to the DOW for $52,900 to compensate for animals lost to one of the state's predators. He, too, recommended that the Henrys consider better protection for the animals -- particularly considering their value. "If you can afford a $30,000 alpaca," he points out, "you can afford a barn to put it in."

Regrettably -- for both the Henrys and the DOW -- they did not take his advice.

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The law making Bill Owens legally liable for the behavior of Colorado's bears and lions is not completely without reason. According to Mark Leslie, who handles damage claims for the DOW, the original statute was passed in the 1930s at the urging of a frustrated -- and powerful -- agricultural lobby.

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