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Slaughter of bison roils ranch town

In a breach of the local code of ethics -- and possibly the law -- 32 are killed after straying onto a neighbor's land.

May 04, 2008|DeeDee Correll | Times Staff Writer

FAIRPLAY, COLO. — This is not a place where buffalo are welcome to roam.

When 32 bison lumbered across a fence that separated their owners' vast, wind-swept expanse of land from a neighboring ranch in March, they ended up dead.

Some fell where they were shot. Others scattered, galloping for miles before they succumbed in the snow.

They were victims, contend the bison's owners, of a murder plot hatched by the neighbor, a Texan frustrated by what he called the repeated trespassing of the herd onto his land.

Law enforcement officials are closemouthed, saying only that they are investigating.

At issue, said Park County Undersheriff Monte Gore, is whether the culprit violated Colorado's century-old open-range law, which says livestock may go pretty much where they please.

Throughout the West, many states still adhere to the open-range principle, a throwback to the 1800s that says it is not a rancher's responsibility to keep livestock fenced in -- it's everyone else's job to keep them out.

If you don't want someone else's cow on your land, the law goes, build a fence. If the cow crosses your fence, you can lock it up until its owner retrieves it, and you can sue the owner for damages. But you can't kill it, said Rick Wahlert, Colorado brand commissioner.

In Colorado's high country, transplanted city dwellers often don't understand, Wahlert said.

"They ask why should they have to fence their property?" he said. "I say, 'OK, fine. You lived in town. Say you had a swimming pool. Did you let the neighbor kids run through? How did you keep them out? You put up a fence. It's the same concept.' "

In the mountain valley at 10,000 feet known as South Park -- for which the Comedy Central animated series is named -- ranchers are doing a slow boil over what they consider a terrible breach of the local code of ethics demanding that neighbors help each other out.

"You work together," said Timm Armstrong, who runs a herd of longhorn cattle, as well as a truck stop at the edge of town.

By most accounts, Monte Downare and his father, Vaughn, didn't have that kind of relationship with Jeff Hawn. The Downares have lived and ranched here a long time, according to locals; Hawn, who lives in Austin, Texas, bought his 362-acre Colorado ranch in 1995.

When he arrived, Hawn built a fence to keep out intruding livestock, according to a lawsuit he has filed against the Downares.

Colorado law spells out what constitutes such a fence: three strands of barbed wire, with posts set 20 feet apart, "sufficient to turn away ordinary horses and cattle."

Hawn's fence met those requirements. But it didn't stop the bison, according to his suit, filed days before the slaughter.

"On numerous separate occasions, herds of buffalo have broken through the fence and stampeded onto the [Hawn] property to graze on the grass," the suit charges. They ate his grass, killed hundreds of trees, knocked out a satellite dish and turned his land into "a feedlot," according to his complaint, which included a photo of three bison strolling past Hawn's deck.

Bison are very difficult to control, said Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Assn., based in Colorado. Notorious for their power and strong wills, bison can run fast and jump high -- clearing a 6-foot-high fence from a standing position.

It's particularly hard to contain them during winters like the one South Park just experienced, during which enormous snowdrifts can bury or knock down fences -- leaving the bison free to step right over them, Carter said.

Neither the Downares nor Hawn returned calls seeking comment. Gore said snowdrifts didn't appear to be a factor in this case.

According to Hawn's suit, the Downares refused to pay for the damage or prevent their buffalo from trespassing.

This spring, the Downares contend in their counterclaim, Hawn and his Denver lawyer, Stephen Csajaghy, "conspired to hire" hunters to shoot the animals.

On March 19, the carcasses were found on the Hawn ranch, other private property and nearby federal lands. The sheriff quickly rounded up 14 hunters who were camping on Hawn's property. They said they had been given permission to shoot the bison, but who gave them that permission is part of the investigation, Gore said.

Throughout Park County, where a stray cow or wandering bison is hardly an oddity, people fumed. At the Silverheels Truck Stop, a local hangout decorated with a stuffed mountain lion and other wildlife, Gerald Steinsiek, 53, recalled the time his neighbor's buffalo knocked down his fence.

"They just hit it and kept going. It didn't slow them down at all," he said.

"I've had them on my property," said Bob Agosti, 60, a plumber and regular at the Silverheels. "It's not a big deal. I don't care if they're on my property."

He supposed that Hawn had the right to take a different view. "But why did he have to take matters into his own hands?" Agosti said. "It's just not something you'd do."

Another sticking point is the fact that the shooters didn't harvest the meat.

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