HELENA – With only two meetings of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission under his belt, the newest board member – Gary Wolfe of Missoula – already is under close scrutiny by at least one conservation organization for his beliefs about public wildlife and private lands.
Wolfe is an ardent believer in conservation and natural resource management. As a wildlife biologist, he’s dedicated his life to big-game management, first on a 494,000-acre private ranch in New Mexico, then as president and chief executive officer for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
He “retired” in 2001, but formed his own wildlife and conservation consulting company, and currently is executive director of the Missoula-based Vital Ground Foundation. He was appointed to the commission earlier this year by Gov. Steve Bullock.
Yet even with this track record of conservation, concerns are being raised after a paper he wrote in the 1980s recently came to light. In the paper, Wolfe extols the merits of having landowners charge fees to hunt elk on their private ranches in New Mexico.
“My experience at Vermejo Park has convinced me that quality big-game hunting is in high demand. Unfortunately, many landowners are ‘missing the boat’ by not properly managing and marketing their wildlife resource,” Wolfe wrote. “Revenue generated from hunting can be a significant source of additional income for the rancher, possibly even more profitable than his livestock operation. A successful hunting operation requires sound land and wildlife management practices, a basic understanding of hunters and their expectations, long-range planning, organization, a marketing program, and good business practices.”
Last week, Wolfe noted that while that method of wildlife management works well in New Mexico, it doesn’t necessarily translate to wildlife management in Montana. He said the ideal situation is when sportsmen can knock on a landowner’s door and be allowed to access wildlife on their property.
“But the flip side is when you have a landowner who doesn’t like hunters or wildlife, and does everything possible to get rid of the wildlife. Then you say, ‘Instead of calling the department and having depredation hunts, harassing animals and complaining, why not charge a trespass fee and make some money,’ ” Wolfe said. “Then you see a lightbulb come on.
“I’m not advocating that, but I think it is something that’s better than the alternative, like when a landowner has elk and deer eating grass, crops and they can’t pay their bills, and they think the only solution is to start selling 20-acre chunks of land with little mini-developments. That’s a much worse situation for wildlife.”
To some of the 5,000 members of the Montana Wildlife Federation, however, the idea of paying a landowner to allow hunters to remove elk and deer from their property smacks of privatizing public wildlife.
“If there’s any suggestion that there’s any place for that in Montana, then we fundamentally disagree,” said Nick Gevock, an MWF spokesman. “Once you go down that road and assign a commodity value to wildlife, you’re done. The next time you go into negotiations with a rancher, he’s there with his attorney and accountant. You’ve turned wildlife into a property right.
“He (Wolfe) could emphatically reject what he wrote in those papers, and say no to the privatization of public wildlife, but to suggest that this has any place in Montana is something we fundamentally disagree with him on.”
The privatization of public wildlife has been an ongoing debate for decades. In 1842, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling set the common law foundation for the principle that wildlife resources are owned by no one, but are held in trust by the government for the benefit of present and future generations.
Almost a century later, the 1930 American Game Policy and the 1937 Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act set precedents for using science to manage wildlife. They also helped ensure hunting was accessible to citizens of all social classes in the United States and Canada, a feature not found in European conservation models.
Since then, though, the North American model has eroded in states across the West. In the southwestern United States, the Spaniards gave away land grants between the 1600s and 1800s to encourage settlement. Consolidation of some of these land grants created million-acre tracts of property under private ownership.
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Farther north, the U.S. government encouraged settlement of the West by providing sections of land to the railroads, intermixed with private property. That created more of a “checkerboard” of public and private ownership.
By the time Wolfe was growing up in New Mexico, many ranchers in the state had moved toward the European conservation model, where people paid large sums of money to hunt for public game on private property. Wolfe said they didn’t use fences to keep wildlife in or out of the 494,000-acre Vermejo Park Ranch, and they undertook management activities in conjunction with state wildlife agencies and the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. At the time, the ranch was home to between 4,000 and 6,000 elk, which was about 20 percent of the New Mexico elk population.
“That system worked really good at the time,” Wolfe said. “When I was at Vermejo Ranch, my job as a wildlife biologist was to help manage the game herd there through state regulations.”
When he worked at Vermejo Park, the ranch was owned by Pennzoil and elk hunting provided more than $500,000 in annual revenue, according to his white paper on elk management on the ranch. That was at a cost of between $100 per hunter for cow elk and $4,000 per hunter for trophy bulls. Today, the ranch is 585,000 acres and owned by media mogul Ted Turner, and a guided trophy elk hunt runs up to $15,000.
Turner also owns the 113,600-acre Flying D ranch near Bozeman, where he also charges $15,000 for a guided trophy elk hunt.
Gevock says that as MWF members watch non-residents purchase large Montana ranches and the use of hefty “trespass fees” progress northward through New Mexico, Utah and Colorado, they fear they’ll be priced out of the ability to put fresh game in their freezer. He said that in the Southern states, the private management of public wildlife has crept onto public lands, especially since some states just give landowners the hunting permits to distribute. In those states, the landowner at times can limit the seasons, as well as who draws the permits.
“I don’t want to pick on Gary, who is a brand-new commissioner,” Gevock said. “I respect his credentials. But I want him to understand that what he’s saying is a colossal mistake. Some people would like to see this in Montana – I went to a MOGA (Montana Outfitters and Guides Association) convention and they had a chart matching Boone and Crocket scores for mule deer with how much you could sell that tag for.
“The North American model is dead in New Mexico. We don’t want to see that happen here.”
Wolfe said he is a firm believer in the North American model of wildlife management, “that wildlife belongs to the people” – and as a commissioner he intends to continue to be a proponent of that model.
“I’m not advocating that it’s better to have landowners charge trespass fees, but under the current North American model where everyone has access to wildlife, the landowner still controls access to the land,” Wolfe said. “Charging a trespass fee is not the same as the European system, because the landowner is charging for use of the land itself. That’s a big difference. It’s respecting the landowners’ right to decide who comes on their property just like those of us do who live in urban areas.”
Gevock counters that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks already has the tools needed to allow people to seek elk on private property when they become a burden to the landowners – and that’s allowing hunters access, even if it is limited.
“Ranchers have a choice, and the best tool is the public hunter,” Gevock said. “If you don’t want that, you can feed the deer and elk all you want.”
Jim Posewitz is founder of Orion: The Hunter’s Institute, which provides leadership on ethical and philosophical issues. He said the issue of balancing public wildlife and private property has been ongoing for years, and the latest discussion is worth pursuing.
“It’s good to generate a dialogue around this,” Posewitz said. “We went through some terrible times with wildlife in Montana and elsewhere, but the conservation ethic was gradually embedded in the people. I’m sitting here today enjoying an abundance of wildlife because people got that ethic. The way to lose it is to privatize it.”