Colorado Ranch Owner Accused in Deaths of 32 Bison

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Jeff Hawn, a software executive who owns a luxury home outside this old mining town, warned his neighbor, rancher Monte Downare, to keep his bison from roaming onto his property or risk having them hunted.

Hawn later sued Downare, alleging the buffalo had turned his land into a feedlot.

Nine days later, shots rang out. The remains of 32 bison were strewn across Hawn's property and nearby land. Deputies learned that 14 hunters received a letter from Hawn giving them permission to hunt bison on his property.

Now Hawn — the president and CEO of Seattle-based Attachmate who lives in Austin, Texas — finds himself in criminal court, charged with theft and 32 counts of aggravated animal cruelty following the March shootings.

The case has outraged many in Fairplay, a town of about 700 in the central Colorado plains founded by gold prospectors in 1859. It's also drawn attention to Colorado's "open range" laws.

Prosecutors on Monday will try to convince a judge there's enough evidence to go to trial. Hawn didn't respond to two messages left by The Associated Press on his cell phone or another left with a spokeswoman at Attachmate.

One of Hawn's defense attorneys, Pamela Mackey, didn't return phone calls or an e-mail seeking comment, while another, Steve Csajaghy, told the AP he couldn't discuss the case. But Csajaghy told the Rocky Mountain News in March that Hawn "had no other choice" but to get rid of the bison to protect himself.

In his Feb. 25 letter inviting the hunters, Hawn said they could hunt animals on his property or remove them live. Investigators believe Hawn may have shot some himself.

According to court documents, 10 of the carcasses were in plain view of his house and some of the bullets they recovered were similar to test rounds fired from a rifle found inside the home.

It's hard to find anyone sympathetic to Hawn in South Park. Downare's family is well-established, and people in Fairplay, the county seat, and tiny Hartsel, the closest town to his ranch, are quick to defend him. They bemoan the waste of so much bison meat and talk about one of the feud's central issues — fences.

Miles of barbed-wire fences line area roads and property boundaries. Unlike rural areas in other parts of the country, Colorado and most other Western states are "open range," meaning livestock can roam wherever they wish. If land owners don't want animals on their property they are urged to build a fence to keep them out. Ranchers don't have to fence their animals.

Given the state's population growth and traffic, Colorado brand commissioner Rich Wahlert, who works to prevent livestock theft and regulates stray livestock, said most ranchers still try to fence their livestock.

Because buffalo are stouter than cattle, he said, they can break through the minimal three-barbed-wire fencing required by Colorado law. Many buffalo producers build taller, stronger fences to keep animals in even though it isn't required.

Wahlert said livestock are bound to escape from any kind of fence and that Downare has a good track record of responding quickly to calls of stray buffalo, which can weigh a ton and jump six feet.

In the civil suit Hawn filed on March 10, he said his barbed-wire fences were sturdy and similar to others in Park County. The suit seeks payment for damage caused by Downare's buffalo.

Hawn said the bison knocked his satellite television dishes offline and left dung, tracks and hair on "pristine pasture on rolling hills." He included as evidence a photograph of three bison walking past his deck.

Investigators say Hawn initially paid one hunter $2,000 to build corrals to capture and remove the buffalo live. When the hunter asked for more money, Hawn allegedly said that if the bison weren't removed in one week he would invite paying hunters to kill the animals. Ranches that raise buffalo for meat sometimes allow people to hunt them for about $2,000 a head.

Downare, in a victim impact statement, said Hawn's invitation to the hunters was crazy. When asked on the form if he would like any special conditions imposed on Hawn, besides paying for the lost bison, valued at $77,000, Downare wrote: "I would like him to fence his property good and leave my livestock alone."

Downare didn't return two phone messages seeking comment, and District Attorney Molly Chilson said she couldn't discuss the case in advance of the hearing.

The bison were killed during a harsh winter. Area resident Cindi Raymer noted that roaming animals were a given, considering that snow covered many fences.

Raymer had a simple answer about whether the area can keep its open range designation, given its influx of retirees and second-home owners.

"Just fence the people out," she said with a laugh.