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Montana sportsmen lose when wildlife's for sale

Guest opinion: Montana sportsmen lose when wildlife's for sale

Billings Gazette

January 19, 2013 12:10 am By NICK GEVOCK

Imagine giving up Montana's five-week deer and elk rifle season so hunters who can pay $20,000 or more for a license can kill bigger bucks and bulls.

How about buying an elk tag only to find that sections of public land where you planned to hunt are only available to hunters who bought their license from a landowner who was given the tag from the state.

And try this one: picture the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks letting a group sell special deer licenses and then having that same group lobby the state Legislature to overturn our stream access law.

If it sounds far fetched or like the workings of a banana republic, it isn't. Those things are happening throughout the West. And those same people want to bring this vision to Montana.

Ranching for wildlife

What do these states have in common? All of them have enacted various programs that are often dubbed "ranching for wildlife." The states give landowners tags to be sold in return for some limited access to private land for hunting.

Start with Colorado. Its "Ranching for Wildlife" program has allowed landowners to take over not only their land, but sections of public land. Average hunters have been told that their tags aren't even valid on some of these sections.

In New Mexico, landowners with as few as a couple acres are given tags by the state, which then get sold on the open market and can be used off the property. The program is obviously a joke, because such landscapes offer no real habitat benefit to wildlife, but it is deeply entrenched because of the money the landowner makes.

Utah leaves hunters out

But by far the most egregious example of selling out the public comes from Utah. The Beehive State has several programs that have turned its wildlife into a commodity, including a landowner tag program in which landowners are issued the majority of the tags to sell while the public gets a handful to hunt there.

Utah also issues special deer permits to groups, including Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, which they get to auction off in exchange for helping to fund habitat improvement projects. It sounds great, but last year the Anchorage Daily News reported that SFW, which has chapters around the country, raised $2.4 million by selling permits nationwide. SFW spent a whopping $1.1 million of that on conferences and conventions, in part to help spread these programs to other states.

The group also used some of that money to lobby its state legislature to weaken Utah's stream access law. That's right, money from the sale of a public resource was used to cut off the public from its public waters.

The trend goes on and on. But the results are always the same: as more states work to privatize wildlife, opportunity for average hunters and anglers to enjoy their fish and wildlife steadily goes down. Utah used to have a general, 11-day deer season in which everybody got to go. Now every big game permit is special draw only.

And now we've been told that the solution for Montana to deal with the always difficult issue of managing public wildlife on private land is to adopt one of these programs.

When Montanans hear that claim, we need to think about what our outdoors opportunities mean to us. What price can we put on time spent in the field with family and friends enjoying world-class hunting? How about the days on our state's rivers and streams while fishing or floating?

Wildlife issues are never simple. But what has consistently made the United States so different than other countries is a core principle that wildlife belongs to everyone, not just the ultra wealthy.

People who say that these other states are the model for Montana are right - they're exactly what we never want our state to become.

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Articles and Information on this site represent the opinion of the writer and are not intended as legal advice. Legal counsel may be needed in dealing with specific access situations and issues.
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