GREAT FALLS, Mont. - Cattle rancher John Bodner didn't have to worry about monitoring hunters last fall on his spread in the foothills of the Little Belt Mountains in central Montana. He left that to an outfitter.
outfitter is like a game warden," said Bodner, who won't say how
large a ranch he runs. "He watches out for my land during hunting
season." In return, the outfitter pays Bodner a fee to bring paying
customers onto his unfenced land to hunt elk that wander there.
Bodner opts to keep mum about the fee, but he says it's modest, in
the four-figure range. "It's a nice little addition," he said, "but
it isn't going to keep me afloat if I have real problems."
Bodner isn't alone in raising cash by closing
his land to local hunters in order to lease access to outfitters.
The move to subsidize ranching operations in the West with wildlife
is growing, says Jerry Holechek, a range scientist at New Mexico
In his 1995 book, Range
Management Principles and Practices, Holechek wrote that the trend
is so advanced in Texas that some ranchers make more money selling
privileges to hunt wild game on their land than they do from
raising livestock. "If agricultural technology keeps ahead of
population growth," he wrote, "wildlife will probably become
greater in economic importance than livestock on many rangelands."
The trend is well entrenched in Montana, and
state officials in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Idaho all report
that local landowners are allowing fewer hunters free access to
their property. Utah rewards landowners for helping feed the
state's wildlife by giving them a percentage of the hunting permits
issued for the area they live in. Some ranchers north of the
eastern Utah town of Green River sell elk permits at prices from
$5,000 to $10,000. Lt. Clare Davis of Utah's Division of Wildlife
Resources said regular state permits for hunting the same region go
for $328 to out-of-state hunters, or $50 for state residents. But
those permits are sold via lottery.
way to get access to the elk is to pay for it," Davis
A sport for the
In Wyoming, this worries some state
officials. "I like to see private enterprise,- said Jeff Obrecht of
the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish. "But it's choking out a
lot of less well-to-do hunters from private lands."
Hunters in Montana aren't any happier. "It used
to be easy to get access to hunt private land, as long as you asked
permission," said Dan Huidekoper, president of the Teton County
Sportsmen Association, based near Montana's Rocky Mountain
"Now, I'm seeing more and more private
land being closed off. I see hunting becoming a rich man's sport.
If you can't afford to pay trespass fees of $150 a day or you can't
afford to buy pack animals and gear to get into the good hunting
areas on public lands, you're going to be out of luck."
A few years ago, when one Teton County landowner
began charging hunters $10 a day to get on his land, Huidekoper
says, most local hunters gladly paid the fee. But when the fee
increased to $25 a day, people stopped
"The average hunter in Choteau can't
afford to pay very much," said Huidekoper, who is an electrician in
Choteau. Neither can many hunters elsewhere in the state, where a
resident can buy a deer tag for only $15.
Ramirez of Missoula knows what it's like to be locked out of land
he traditionally hunted for years. As a nephew of John Bodner, he
was often invited to hunt elk on the ranch. But now Ramirez can
only hunt deer in lower pastures not leased to
"I understand why my uncle was forced
into it, but I'm a little bummed out that outfitters have taken
over a lot of land, especially on the east side (of the Rocky
Mountains)," Ramirez said.
Bigger cattle ranches,
in particular, have begun catering to wealthier clientele. Tom
Elliott, owner of Montana's oldest ranch, the sprawling 48,000-acre
N-Bar Ranch near Grass Range, carefully manages his range and
timber operations to protect elk, deer and antelope herds. In the
fall, his employees guide guests to the animals. He charges from
$5,000 to $12,000 a hunt, depending on whether a deer or bull elk
is shot. The income generated from the hunts is important to
sustaining the ranch.
Many other ranchers say
they have no choice but to charge for hunting on their land because
they need to control wildlife. Thanks to better wildlife management
and stricter hunting laws, deer and elk populations have
skyrocketed across Montana. But now farmers and ranchers routinely
complain about herds chewing down their grasslands or breaking into
"We aren't being compensated for the
forage that the critters are taking from us,- said Dave Germann, a
rancher in the Madison Valley. "It's an economic loss for us.
Twenty years ago there were probably 20 elk in this entire area.
Now I could shoot several from the back door." Germann, whose ranch
is too small to lease out for hunts, is working with his neighbors
to consolidate their holdings and form a private hunting club.
"That is an inevitable circumstance of what's happening," he
Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife
and Parks has entered the market by setting up a public hunting
program that pays ranchers for use of their land. Called the Block
Management Program, it's the savior of public hunting, says the
agency. For the 1997 hunting season, 940 landowners enrolled more
than 7.5 million acres of private land in the program. The state
pays a participating landowner $10 for every hunter who uses his
land in a day. The average payment to a landowner is about $3,000
during a hunting season, though the Montana Legislature has capped
payments at $8,000, says Alan Charles, the state's coordinator of
take no payment," Charles said. "They just want increased
enforcement and to make sure the resource is harvested - instead of
people just shooting trophy bucks." He adds that many more
landowners want into the program than funding
Ramirez, the Missoula hunter, says Block
Management might be the last hope to preserve hunting as a sport
for the average hunter. "Sportsman groups need to get together and
support that," he said. "(Block Management) still offers a
relatively cheap hunting opportunity."
Bodner says hunters can blame themselves in part for the decline of
free hunting on private land. Poor manners originally forced him to
padlock the gates to his property.
closed off the place, we had people driving all around and leaving
trash all over," Bodner said. "One day I counted 30 vehicles. I
just couldn't control them."
Teton County Sportsmen Association president, is sympathetic to the
ranchers' plight. "They feed game animals year-round and they want
compensation," he said. "I just wish there were a way to work with
private landowners to get more access for the general public."
Mark Matthews writes
from Missoula, Montana.
* Write Alan Charles at the Montana
Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, 1420 E 6th Ave., Helena, MT
59620, or call 406/444-2535.