Wyoming lawsuit would privatize wildlife


No one owns the sky. At least not yet. But ownership of the land, the water and now the wildlife is continually sought by people with too much money and a lot of greed. This country was founded by people running from kings who only let land-owning aristocrats hunt. Even if they were starving, the poor were fined, imprisoned, maimed and killed if they were caught hunting.

My good fellows, it's really a very simple concept. We all know that there are hundreds of deer in the forest. Which means that the King, and all his men, can kill all of the deer they want, any day of the week they want, and there will always be more. So you see, there's absolutely no reason why the game laws should apply to any of these gentle-born men, just as long as we do our job and make sure that the peasants are never allowed to kill a single deer.

- Anonymous gamekeeper, Sherwood Forest, Nottingham

Needless to say, that's one of the first laws the settlers in the New World did away with. A rare, hard-won concept that sets us apart from other nations is our belief in public resources. Publicly held parks, forests, rangelands, recreation areas, historic sites, trails and wildlife are all examples of this concept. But if those pioneers could see what's happening in Wyoming these days, I believe their revolutionary spirits would shriek.

A recent lawsuit filed in Wyoming hopes to dispense with public ownership or management of wildlife. In their complaint filed in U.S. District Court, three landowners state that they "own the exclusive right to hunt" on their property, and that "elk, deer, antelope and other game which live on and may be found on plaintiffs' lands are not the property of the state of Wyoming."

This is a little hard to swallow, one would think, since our game animals are migratory, ranging freely over large distances during the course of their lifetime. Nevertheless, if you've got the money, time and personnel to spend on litigation, odds are you're way ahead of the financial resources of state game agencies or conservation groups.

The plaintiffs include Texas millionaire Clayton Williams, most recently an unsuccessful candidate for the Texas governorship. The Wyoming ranchers are Ray Allemand and Marion and Mary Scott. The Scotts' ranch is near Gillette in Campbell County; Allemand's Salt Creek Ranch is near Douglas in Natrona and Converse counties; and Williams has a 90,000-acre spread in Carbon County. The ranchers are represented by Karen Budd-Falen, who has represented the anti-conservation wise-use movement on other issues. She says any restrictions on hunting licenses awarded to landowners is a "taking" of their private property rights.

The plaintiffs stand to gain a lot if they win this suit. They would control hunting privileges on their property and could charge whatever the market would bear for those privileges.

Currently, the management of wildlife, now enjoyed by all, is paid for by those few who buy hunting and fishing licenses and equipment. This system still works because everyone has an equal opportunity to get a hunting or fishing license. That fairness would disappear if individuals were allowed to own and control the wildlife that roams their land.

More than a fair chance at a hunting license stands to lose in this case. There is the concept of free-ranging wildlife, wildlife managed for the future instead of today's marketplace, and natural-resource ownership by the public.

Wyoming Game and Fish Director Peter Petera says, "A case like this could potentially take the common hunter completely out of the picture. If the state loses its ability to control the number of licenses and regulate how these licenses are issued, the result could be disastrous for the public as well as the resource."

The first hue and cry against the plaintiffs in this case came from the hunting community. If these landowners are successful in their lawsuit, the pool from which resident and non-resident licenses are drawn to hunt in Wyoming could virtually disappear.

But since this summer, when the suit was filed, the Wyoming Wildlife Federation has built a broad coalition to fight this case, including representatives of conservation groups not usually associated with preserving hunters' rights, ranchers, outfitters and many non-hunters and other conservationists.

When wildlife were controlled solely by market factors in the past, we saw the decimation of buffalo, egrets, beaver and other animals. With state, biologically directed control of wildlife management, people have equal opportunity to engage in hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing and nature photography. And we have some hope that despite all the attacks on natural resource conservation, there may still be some of those resources around for our grandchildren to haggle over.

Private landowners in Wyoming already control access to their lands and many charge fees to hunters and anglers, even if only to cross private land to gain access to public property. If the economics of domestic livestock ranching is driving landowners to seek ownership of our wildlife, then let's address those economic woes in the proper venue. Taking our wildlife for private gain is no long-term answer to their problems.

June Rain is executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation at 2521 Central Ave., Cheyenne, WY 82001 (307/637-5433).

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