Big Game, Big Money

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

And what, exactly, is an "agricultural" product? The new law still pays for losses sustained by beekeepers, who, despite Winnie the Pooh, always seem surprised when a bear raids their hives for honey. Last year, the DOW paid out $70,000 for bear/bee claims. The change was also designed to prevent claims on bear damage to vehicles. "But let's say a bear comes in and eats a tractor seat, which they do," says Leslie. Or what if a bear rips apart a shed used to store farming supplies? Even dog injuries could get tricky. "We won't pay for the pet poodle that sits on the porch and gets munched by a mountain lion," Leslie notes. But what about a sheepherding dog that gets on a lion's bad side?

While the new law closed some loopholes, it added others. The state now accepts claims not just for wreckage caused by bears and lions, but also that caused by elk. This inclusion would have helped Evergreen's Terri Tucker, who last spring filed a claim when her rare Welch Cob mare was gored to death by an elk. Her request for $12,335.85 in reimbursement was denied under the old law.

Although the legal changes were heartily supported by farming and ranching interests, which felt that state funds were being abused by ranchette owners and hot-tub connoisseurs, that doesn't mean that agricultural organizations are now content. In nearly every legislative session, they've sponsored bills that would require the DOW to pay for coyote damage, and such lobbying will continue.

Mike Gorman

"We lost $1.49 million to predators last year," says Bonnie Kline, executive director of Colorado Woolgrowers. "Fifty-four percent of that -- about 8,400 head -- was to coyotes." One La Plata County ranch alone lost livestock valued at $128,000 to coyotes.

Sheep ranchers say they expect some loss to predators. But the number of coyote kills has soared in recent years -- partly as a result of trapping restrictions imposed by Amendment 14. "We're not anti-wildlife," Kline explains. "We just need the ability to protect our livestock. Half of Colorado's land is in farms and ranches. We provide a lot of habitat for the state's wildlife. Something needs to come back to us."

Joe Sperry, a sheep rancher who runs his animals near Redstone, agrees. This past summer, he lost 89 lambs to coyotes, thirteen lambs and eight ewes to bears, and two ewes and three lambs to mountain lions. And he couldn't try to trap the predators -- even within the tight restrictions imposed by Amendment 14 -- because an endangered lynx had been spotted nearby.

"My opinion is that if the people in the state of Colorado have voted out our options to deal with predators, they need to pay for it," Sperry says.

Even if state lawmakers continue to reject coyote claims, Colorado's game-damage reimbursement laws remain generous in comparison to those of other states. While several states have agreed to help out farmers and ranchers inconvenienced by bears and lions, most don't pay cash to cover the costs.

"Colorado has been an exception," says Kenny Mower, a statistician for the New Mexico Division of Wildlife. "Nearly all of the rest of the states didn't want to get in the business of paying for wildlife damage, because it can be such a black hole."

For years, New Mexico resisted offering any relief, contending that predators are part of the cost of ranching in the Wild West. "Why is it that all these private landowners can't take care of their stuff?" wonders Don MacCarter, a spokesman for that state's DOW.

Earlier this year, however, New Mexico finally succumbed to political pressure, primarily from ranchers, and the DOW there began adding a $5 "game depredation" fee to most hunting licenses. The money will help offset damages suffered by farmers and ranchers at the hooves and paws of unruly elk, bears and lions -- but can be used only for mitigation work, such as educating people on how to protect their property, building fences, discouraging predators, etc.

Even so, New Mexico's law is off to a rocky start. Many hunters have protested the fee; others are simply refusing to pay it. "They resent their money going to private landowners because they can't take responsibility for their property and want to play cowboy," Mower explains.

The Henrys did not build new fences or a barn, as wildlife officers had advised. But following the death of their third alpaca, they did try several different strategies to keep the mountain lion away from their herd. They moved the animals closer to the ranch house. They kept bright lights on at night and played loud music in an effort to scare the lions.

None of it worked. On October 28, 2000, Pat Dobiash awoke to find four more dead alpacas. This time, the Henrys' claim to the state totaled just under $80,000. The state's wildlife commissioners, who review larger claims, balked at the number, but after the Henrys' lawyer got involved, the DOW eventually agreed to pay $60,000 for the alpacas slain by one bad lion.

The day after the four alpacas were killed, Hody Ewing and his hounds tracked the big cat for ten hours, into New Mexico and across tribal lands, but the lion eluded them. Finally, on December 6, the lion, a large male, was trapped and destroyed. Soon after, the Henrys decided to concentrate on their Wisconsin insurance business and sold the remainder of their alpacas.

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