Big Game, Big Money

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

The statute was an early display of the state's environmental sensibility. By the 1930s, traditional methods of controlling Colorado's natural predators -- primarily by killing them all -- had resulted in the near-extinction of wolves and grizzly bears. Lion and black-bear populations had plummeted as well, and a pro-predator public backlash was building. So an agreement was reached in the legislature: Farmers and ranchers agreed not to immediately dispatch any predator that wandered onto their land, and the state promised to pay cash for any damage done by the big animals.

Like most compromise laws, this one had flaws, and no one walked away totally satisfied. For example, the most dangerous predators in the state are coyotes, which every year kill and maim many times the number of farm animals mauled by bears and lions. That's precisely why lawmakers purposely excluded coyote killings from being subject to damage claims. "If we had to pay for coyotes, we'd be out of business," Leslie says.

But over the years, the law has also been used to benefit those it was never intended to serve. Increasingly, damage claims had been filed by people who have only a tenuous claim to earning a living in agriculture. Alpaca ranchers, for instance.

Mike Gorman

And plenty of claims have been filed by people who have nothing at all to do with living off the land. "For some reason, bears have an affinity for hot-tub covers," Leslie says. He knows this because every year, dozens of new mountain dwellers have successfully sought reimbursement for bear/sauna incidents. (The covers average about $500 a pop.) The state has also forked over checks for damage done by bears to barbecue grills ("They're like a bear feeding station," Leslie says), cars, campers and storage sheds.

Suburban pioneers have been so successful in dunning the state that word has spread to new homeowners, resulting in even more claims. According to Leslie, homeowners' associations routinely inform residents that Colorado is liable for the inconveniences of living in the wilderness. In one recent case, the DOW paid a $4,300 veterinary bill for a family dog that was mauled by a lion. And, Leslie says, more than one insurance company has advised clients not to file damage claims through their homeowners' policies, but instead to send them to the DOW as a way to both recover some money and prevent rates from rising. Last year alone, the DOW paid claims totaling $90,000 for bear violence toward tents, RVs, household items, vehicles and buildings.

Over the past ten years, the question of just who's responsible for mischief done by hungry bears and lions has been even more hotly debated. As Colorado's population becomes more urban, more people view the state's wide-open spaces as a recreational opportunity rather than part of a livestock operation. Today most residents of the Front Range consider wild animals -- at least the idea of wild animals -- an attraction rather than a nuisance.

The result has been several popularly enacted laws that further protect bears and lions from being killed by humans. In 1992, Amendment 10 outlawed spring hunts for bear. Amendment 14, passed four years later by a slim margin, severely curtailed the trapping of predators ("Loaded for Bear," November 14, 1996).

Before both votes, ranchers protested that the new restrictions would lead to an increase in the number of predators and thus greater damage to their livestock. According to some estimates, as many as 75 percent of the bears taken in Colorado were killed by hunters during the spring season. Many of those were so-called low-level bears -- animals harvested at lower elevations because of still-heavy snows in the mountains. The same animals, in other words, most likely to eat livestock.

But today, it's not at all clear that livestock kills have increased. It's true that there has been a general growth in the number and amount of damages filed with the DOW since 1992, and bear claims are up dramatically since 1995. Some wildlife officers do blame the hunting limits, yet others say weather is a bigger factor. And since the passage of Amendment 14 in 1996, damage claims connected to mountain lions have fallen off dramatically.

Other explanations for the rise in claims have more to do with people than animals. According to Leslie, much of the increase can be attributed to more people moving into territory that bears and lions once had to themselves -- not the presence of more bears. Traditionally, the DOW has moved "problem bears" away from the people they bother. But, Leslie adds, "We're running out of places to put them."

No matter what caused the increase in claims, there was no question that, by the end of the 1990s, the amount of money the state was paying to settle them had become a problem. So last year the state legislature changed the law. As of this past summer, the DOW now accepts claims on personal property only for damage done to items involved in the production of "raw agricultural products." Another section of the new law -- call it the "alpaca clause" -- caps the amount of reimbursement for a single animal at $5,000.

Even this revised law, though, does not settle all disputes. The state can now deny claims if the claimant has failed to "exercise reasonable care and diligence to avoid the loss." But what, and who, defines "reasonable care"?

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