Big Game, Big Money
Mike Gorman

Big Game, Big Money

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.

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.

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.

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.

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"?

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.

"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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