I am a farmer/rancher and landowner. I am also a hunter, angler, and recreationist. Each of these terms describe me but I am the sum total of all. I have never charged anyone a dime for access to my property. I take on as many hunters as I can but sometimes have to limit the numbers so as not to be overrun. After 40 years on the land, I have retired. Over that time, I have watched the “landscape” deteriorate from “hunt where you want but be respectful” to one of tightly controlled – or no- access. I believe that there is more to be said, and said candidly from the perspectives of both landowners and hunters/recreationists.
The root of the issue seems to be from a growing disconnect between rural landowners and urban recreationists. We’re all busy. We are much more mobile and don’t have the same level and type of contact with close friends and neighbors as we did in the past. I remember fondly all the times our family went to stay the weekend with our country cousins. Brandings, livestock and chores, machinery and driving, real fresh eggs, milk and cream and maybe hand-cranked ice cream Great wholesome food from gardens and barnyards. We kids kept busy all weekend while our folks visited and played cards. We developed an understanding of each other’s lives and real, close relationships came from that.
The level and kinds of interaction today has declined due to many factors. Livestock handling and machinery have become increasingly high tech and expensive. Kids aren’t welcome to play here. Farms having combinations of geese, turkeys, chickens, milk cows, beef, sheep, pigs, and cattle are rare.
In addition, there are so many additional “extra-curricular” activities and sports that we didn’t have. Parents pass each other coming and going, often dividing kid’s interests and commitments between them. Social time is at these events. Golf, tennis, soccer, swimming, etc. have been added to football basketball and track. Computer games and fast-thumbing on smart phones occupies the attention of so many folks.
Yet, a major touchstone of Montana’s heritage is shared resources such as wildlife. Montanans love to hunt and fish and recreate. It is family time. Wild game is a regular feature on the menus of many homes. People move here from out of state and work for less money than they could get in big cities for those reasons. Many of us who were born here made conscious decisions to stay here even if it meant making less money. The quality- and quantity of life- was worth the trade.
The personal relationship building of the past seems to receive less emphasis. Liability issues and OSHA make free help from outside folks much riskier and far less desirable. Relationships are much harder to build at a distance. Getting Western Montana townsfolk and Eastern Montana producers together happens on fewer occasions.
Something that many people who are not rural producers don’t understand is that Private Property Rights are paramount to landowners. Management decisions and the responsibility for the results of those decisions made on private property largely rest with the owners. Their livelihoods survive or not, based on these decisions. There too, are those landowners who consider the public lands they lease for farming or grazing to be essentially their own personal property. Many of these folks fail to recognize that they are only paying leases for grazing and/or farming. Those leases do not allow limiting access to the public. Also, as a result, many lessees are inclined to deny public access across their private property to access these public lands.
One thing that has struck me is that there seems to be little focus on what I call Public Property Rights. There are those who deny that the public owns all wildlife, and that each and every one of us shares in the ownership of our public lands. For some Americans and Montanans, public lands are the only ownership they will ever have. As a result, they love their public lands, and with good reason.
Why are landowners often at odds with recreationists? I see many contributing factors, attributed to both “sides.” Some recreationists show what I perceive is an arrogance about private lands. Folks forget that the landowner owes them nothing; trespass or access is a privilege not a right. Garbage dumping, littering, thoughtless tearing up of roads, willful unethical behavior, ignoring game laws, property damage and vandalism, unauthorized driving – the list goes on and on. When these activities regularly occur, it’s hard for a landowner to want to be generous. Additionally, many recreationists are not good about turning in illegal activities. They assume it’s not their problem or simply don’t want to be bothered. We need to step up and be accountable. “If you see something, say something” is the right way to help and show appreciation for the privileges you are accorded on private land.
The story of the hunter or angler encountering a landowner who treats them unfairly and poorly is as old as the hills. Upon asking permission to hunt on a rancher’s land, are lectured about how bad all recreationists are, getting a solid chewing for other’s inexcusable indiscretions. The recreationist gets an earful about how tough the landowner has it, and is personally blamed for the state’s wildlife agency’s missteps or contentious policies. Add to that the increasing lack of public access to private lands where there is so much pent up demand that landowners get inundated. Very early morning visits and calls and those late at nite to landowners who do welcome the public become overwhelming, coupled with long hunting seasons. As a result, good, reliable folks are denied access without having a chance to prove themselves.
Along with these issues, add private land outfitters to the mix. They are profit driven, and frankly, offer an alternative to landowners in the form of good payments and responsibility to handle all recreation on the place. Since outfitters usually demand exclusive access for their clients, the public is completely left out of the equation. Some outfitters claim to “manage” these places to maximize bucks and bulls but in reality is simply restricting access and as a result putting more and more wild critters on the ground. “Managing” for trophy wildlife by restricting access can be done by anyone; it is not wildlife management. Managing overall game populations and their distribution across the landscape is the charge of FWP in Montana. But there seems to be no responsibility taken by these outfitters to “manage” (i.e.- encourage and engage in the hunting of) all critters in the herd, particularly those pesky, “valueless” antlerless critters who are protected by limited access and hunting during the regular seasons, Wildlife numbers expand, often exponentially, with the result of over-objective herds, moving onto the neighboring properties (often ones that do allow public hunting), reeking havoc on someone else’s property. Late season, antlerless-only seasons then are demanded to solve the “problem” without affecting outfitted, antlered buck or bull clientele. There seems to be no consideration to run seasons concurrently to avoid brucellosis, chronic wasting disease, and other maladies that result from unnatural concentrations of wildlife. Concurrent seasons could disperse animals on the landscape while at the same time, offer public hunters a chance to harvest on private and public lands accessible to them. Shoulder seasons (hunting season that would begin and/or end after the 5-week General Rifle Season) were recently pushed as a means to deal with these problems. But they have performance criteria that require buy-in by landowners and outfitters, which has been pretty limited except with a few notable exceptions. The problems created for the private landowners through exclusive hunting on their properties keeps going to the legislature for resolution. The Fish and Wildlife Commission is the place where such decisions need to be made. They have the time, access to resources, information and expertise to consider the best way to move. Making wildlife management policy decisions in the partisan arena only serves to slap bandaids on problems and utilizes the most convenient and politically expedient solutions. We’ve seen the can kicked down the road too many times. Nonetheless, I expect to see the outfitters to continue to try to legislate their way out of their responsibility for the problem.
Farmers and ranchers were the original conservationists. Landowners are a fiercely independent lot and often that tenacity has paid off. Farmers and ranchers are coming off the best financial decade ever and they deserve it. There have been some real tough times for producers with little or no return on their investments. Often, government help was the only way we survived. Yes, government help with crop price deficiencies and disaster aid kept many farmers and ranchers on the land. Subsidized crop insurance makes risk management affordable to producers. In addition, the services of government agencies like the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resource Conservation Service and Dept. Natural Resources and Conservation provide help with land management decisions, loans, and improvements like water and grazing systems, fencing, trees, CRP, wildlife improvements, and many others. But are these entitlements? Maybe to some, but they are paid for by all the tax paying residents of our country, “The Public.”
Leases on state and federal public lands for farming and grazing are a huge, necessary part of many producers’ operations. Generally, these leases are made far below “market”- what would be charged by a private landowner. In the case of federal leases, they are so low as to be ridiculous. Yet, these allowances have kept many an outfit in Montana in operation. Once again, who pays for the costs of these agencies who often manage at a big loss? “The Public.”
My intention is not to single out anyone. Keeping agricultural operations viable not only contributes to the economy but more often than not, has been of great benefit to wildlife, fisheries and public recreation in general. But I think it’s important to point to the fact there is legitimate and crucial financial interaction and relationship between producers and the public. Yes, those same town folks who you go to church with, basketball games, funerals, weddings, and benefits. The same folks who own the hotels, restaurants, gas stations, stores, bars, etc. The families your kids go to school with. Property taxes paid by landowners are a major component of the sustenance of our towns and counties. We need to recognize that it is a two-way street.
I believe it’s high time to realize we are all in this together and no one is getting out alive. Landowners, producers, and their city cousins all contribute to something called community, this thing we call “The Last Best Place”. FWP manages wildlife in trust for all of us. We all have legitimate and equal stakes in how it is managed and maintained into the future. Landowners as well as recreationists must realize we all rely upon one another, and, in fact, need each other. Tolerance and cooperation are the main components of our collective successful future. We all need to take responsibility for our actions!
Solutions: Sportsmen, take the FWP Hunter Landowner Stewardship course online. Report lawbreakers, “if you see something, say something.” Treat access to private lands as a privilege. Use “Fair Chase” and “Hunter Ethics” as your guide.
Landowners, know what the “Public Trust Doctrine” and the “North American Model of Wildlife Conservation” are. Remember your leased public lands are a privilege not a right. Share the resources your property can offer with your less fortunate urban cousins. Keep track of bad eggs and habitual offenders and let them pay the price for indiscretions, while allowing others to prove themselves. Have enough tolerance for the Public to harvest excess critters within the regular season.
Outfitters: Yes you are a business but, since you harvest Public Trust resources, treat it as a privilege. Look at more than just money in your pocket. Have some compassion for the critters. Work with sportsmen to allow harvest on leased lands during the regular seasons. Take responsibility for problems you create. When you run to the legislature to bypass public process, expect to pay the price of bad relationships with the Public. Public Land Outfitters, if you don’t want to pay the price for bad relationships caused by Private Land Outfitters, speak up for integrity! You have always shared the resources and have taken a shared role in management decisions. You have worked with sportsmen on a variety of issues. Be cautious who you allow to represent you.