Some cattle ranchers sell out to hunting

  • Outfitters Only: Local hunters are being pushed out in Montana

    Mark Matthews photo

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.

"The 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 State University.

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.

"The easiest way to get access to the elk is to pay for it," Davis said.

A sport for the rich

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 Front.

"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 coming.

"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.

David 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 outfitters.

"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 haystacks.

"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 said.

Saving public hunting

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 landowner-sportsmen relations.

"Some landowners 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 allows.

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."

Rancher 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.

"Before I 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."

Huidekoper, the 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.

You can ...

* Write Alan Charles at the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, 1420 E 6th Ave., Helena, MT 59620, or call 406/444-2535.