The following was written by Conrad landowner Joe Perry. Last week, Perry received the Montana Neighbor Award for decades of conservation work to provide wildlife habitat and hunter access.
I am a farmer/rancher and landowner. I am also a hunter, angler, and recreationist. Each of these terms describe part of me, but I am the sum total of all. I’ve welcomed as many hunters to my property as I could and never changed a dime. Now, after 40 years, I have retired. Over the years, I watched hunting opportunity deteriorate from “hunt where you want but be respectful” to being either tightly controlled or no-access. I want to address the causes of this change candidly from the perspectives of both landowners and hunters/recreationists.
The root of the issue seems to be a growing disconnect between rural landowners and urban hunters and recreationists. The personal relationship building of the past seems to receive less emphasis. Liability issues and OSHA make accepting free help from outside folks more risky and far less desirable. So getting Western Montana townsfolk and Eastern Montana producers together happens on fewer occasions. Unfortunately, relationships are much harder to build at a distance.
In particular, people who are not rural producers don’t understand that private property rights are paramount to landowners. Farmers and ranchers were the original conservationists, taking care of their own land. Management decisions and the responsibility for the results of those decisions largely rest with the landowners. Their livelihoods survive or don’t, based on these decisions.
For that reason, landowners are a fiercely independent lot, and often that tenacity has paid off. Financially, farmers and ranchers are coming off the best decade ever. They deserve it after the tough times whey they got little or no return on their investments. In those times, government help was often the only way they survived. Government help with crop price deficiencies and disaster aid kept many farmers and ranchers on the land. Subsidized crop insurance makes risk management affordable for producers. In addition, agencies like the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resource Conservation Service and Department of Natural Resources and Conservation provide help with land management decisions, loans, improvements like water and grazing systems, fencing, trees, wildlife improvements and many other needs. Are these entitlements? Maybe to some, but they are paid for by “The Public,” all of our nation’s taxpayers.
Leases on state and federal public lands for farming and grazing are necessary part of many producers’ operations. Generally, the cost of government leases is far below the market value charged by a private landowner. In the case of federal leases, they are so low as to be ridiculous. But once again, who pays for these agencies that often manage at a big loss? “The Public.”
However, there are landowners who consider leased public lands to be their own private property. Also, some lessees try to reinforce their control by denying public access through their private property to reach these public lands. Many of these folks fail to recognize that they are only paying for leases to graze and/or farm. Those leases do not allow barring the public from access.
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. Property taxes paid by landowners are a major component of the sustenance of our towns and counties. 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. We need to recognize that it is a two-way street.
One thing that has saddened me is how little focus there is on what I call “public property rights.” Sharing has been a major touchstone of Montana’s heritage, especially when it comes to resources such as wildlife. Montanans love to hunt, fish and recreate. To hold onto that heritage, many of us who were born here made conscious decisions to stay while others choose to move here, even when it meant making less money. The quality and quantity of life is worth the trade. For some, public land is the only ownership they can ever claim. As a result, they love their public lands, rivers and wildlife with good reason. Yet, there are those who would try to deny that wildlife is part of the public trust and that each and every one of us shares in the ownership of our public lands.
Why are landowners often at odds with recreationists? I see many contributing factors on both “sides.”
Some recreationists show what I perceive is a disregard for private lands. They forget that the landowner owes them nothing; access is a privilege not a right. Some thoughtlessly engage in garbage dumping, littering, tearing up of roads, unauthorized driving, willful unethical behavior, ignoring game laws, property damage and vandalism – 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 reporting illegal activities. 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.
On the other hand, the story of the hunter or angler encountering a landowner who treats them poorly is as old as the hills. Upon asking permission to hunt on a rancher’s land, some can be lectured about how bad all recreationists are, receiving a solid chewing for inexcusable indiscretions of others. The recreationist can get an earful about how tough the landowner has it and is personally blamed for the state’s wildlife agency’s missteps or contentious policies. Sometimes even friendly landowners reach their limit. In areas where there is so much pent-up demand, landowners can be inundated. Unending visits or calls asking for permission to hike or hunt can become overwhelming and some respond by limiting access to their land. Long hunting seasons make it even worse. As a result, good, reliable folks are sometimes denied access without having a chance to prove themselves.
Things are made worse when private-land outfitters are added to the mix. Since outfitters usually demand exclusive access for their clients, the public is eliminated from the equation. As businessmen, they are profit-driven but, frankly, they offer landowners the alternative of good payments and someone to handle all the recreation on the place.
Some outfitters claim to “manage” these places to maximize bucks and bulls, but in reality, they are simply restricting access. They don’t “manage” (i.e., encourage or engage in the hunting of) all members of the herd, particularly those “valueless” antlerless does that make more critters. So wildlife numbers expand, often exponentially, creating over-sized herds that wreak havoc on neighboring properties (often ones that do allow public hunting). Frustrated landowners then demand late antlerless-only seasons to solve the “problem” caused by outfitters.
Landowners keep turning to the legislature for resolution. But such a partisan arena only serves to slap ill-fitting band-aids on problems, utilizing the most convenient and politically expedient solutions. I expect to see outfitters to continue to try to legislate their way out of their responsibility for the problem. But the Fish and Wildlife Commission is where such decisions need to be made. They have the time, access to resources, information and expertise to consider the best way to move forward.
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 relations with the public. Public Land Outfitters, if you don’t want to pay the price for bad relations 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 about who you allow to represent you.