Hunting season is finished this year for most people in Northwest Colorado, but for a select few the season is only half over.
Ranching for Wildlife, a Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) program, allows property owners with more than 12,000 acres to hunt through December with special licenses.
Ranching for Wildlife was created in 1985 to benefit the public and wildlife. Twenty-five ranches across the state participate, nine are located in Moffat County. Participants receive licenses based on the size of the ranch. Of the licenses for male animals, 10 percent must be issued to the public through a DOW draw, and 100 percent of female licenses must be given to the public. While the DOW claims the program has opened up more than a million acres to the public and helped encourage landowners to manage their land for wildlife, there are some people who believe Ranching for Wildlife is detrimental to outfitters, animals and sportsmen in Northwest Colorado.
Ranching for Wildlife allows ranch owners to allocate hunting licenses based on the amount of acreage they own. Licenses do not have any of the normal restrictions, including point or sex restrictions. Licenses are valid for a 90-day season from August through December. Anyone with the licenses may use any legal method of taking animals during the Ranching for Wildlife season. Participants are allowed to sell up to 90 percent of the licenses they receive while 10 percent have to be allotted to the public in a special draw. Remaining licenses are allowed to be sold to anyone who is willing to pay for them. The price of licenses can be $3,000 and up per hunter and then bonuses for the size of the animal shot.
Dean Visintainer, whose land is part of the Blue Gravel Ranch Ranching for Wildlife program, wouldn't say what he charges for tags on his ranch, but did say he charges the market price or whatever traffic will bear.
Special privileges of Ranching for Wildlife have Northwest Colorado residents claiming the program is unfair.
Rod Johansen owns and runs Nakota Outfitters and believes Ranching for Wildlife has not only hurt his business, but is also unfair to the public.
"What it really is is a license to poach," said Johansen. "I want the general public to know that they are getting screwed. The DOW is in it for the buck; it's a big-money game. The morals and ideals of hunting are gone."
Visintainer believes opposition to the program is due to peoples's opinion on change.
"It's a change and people are afraid of change," said Visintainer.
Carl Chapman, Craig City Council member and a local sportsman, hears complaints about the program while he is working in his auto parts store.
"The biggest complaint I hear is about the length of the season," said Chapman. "It is something that we absolutely need for the ranchers, but I don't know if they have it figured out yet."
One of the problems outfitters and sportsmen have with the program is how "loose" it is. The 90-day season for elk and the 60-day season for deer and antelope allotted to Ranching for Wildlife is one of the main objections of outfitters who hunt near ranches that participate in the program.
Joe Funkhouser, who outfits for the Craig Wild Bunch, believes the program affects his success rates and keeps animals from traveling along normal migration routes.
"It's causing problems," said Funkhouser, "by not hunting at the same time we do. They are the taxpayers' animals and the taxpayers aren't getting access to them."
Outfitters say participants in the program don't have to hunt during the normal hunting seasons. Many people concerned with the program believe that by allowing participants to hunt at different times it allows animals to be herded by the pressure of people hunting during public seasons. In effect, the hunting pressure during public seasons pushes animals onto Ranching for Wildlife property that is usually not hunted during the public seasons. Critics of the program even go as far as to accuse participants of then hunting along the edges of their property, purposely keeping animals on the property and from traveling traditional migration routes.
"It just sets up a sanctuary," said Johansen.
Ron Lawton, who owns a ranch north of Craig with five different Ranching for Wildlife programs within 10 or 15 miles of his property, has noticed a change in the animals' migration. He doesn't outfit or allow more than three or four hunters on his property each year, but is still concerned.
"The Ranching for Wildlife bunches those big herds then they just hold them," said Lawton "They just hunt the fringes (of the property) and bump them back into the middle so the elk just hold there. It's changing the migration. It just benefits the big guys while the smaller outfitters are suffering because of it."
Visintainer said the Ranching for Wildlife isn't the biggest threat to migration routes.
"I'll tell you what is affecting migration routes subdivisions," said Visintainer.
Another objection people raise is program participants are allowed to use any method of take during the three-month hunting season, creating a safety problem. When outfitters and public hunters enter mountains in camouflage during bow season, they are hunting near Ranching for Wildlife participants who are allowed to hunt with rifles. According to critics, this poses a serious risk for bow hunters.
Point restrictions are another objection people raise. Normal hunting regulations don't allow people to shoot anything less than a four-point elk and a three-point deer in some game management units (GMU). Ranching for Wildlife tags are not restricted.
Chapman believes the point restrictions should remain the same as the point restrictions placed on the public.
"I personally believe if we've got game laws we ought to live by them," said Chapman. "Everybody should have to live by the rules."
According to Visintainer, hunters on his ranch are only allowed to shoot a four-point or better bull and hunting is limited to the normal big-game seasons.
When Ranching for Wildlife was created one of the main points supporters boasted of was it would allow the public to gain access to private land. Many people are adamant the public benefits little from the program. How much the public benefits from the program is directly in the hands of ranchers who participate. There are accusations that public hunters fortunate enough to draw one of the coveted Ranching for Wildlife tags are taken to different spots to hunt where there are fewer animals to hunt, while hunters who buy licenses to hunt on the private land are taken to more prime hunting spots.
"It's very much a misconception that it benefits the public," said Johansen. "It's supposed to benefit the public so much; I think it hurts them. They won't take the public to the prime areas. I've seen it happen."
Under program regulations the public only has to be allowed to hunt for four days and the ranch can select the four days.
"The public only gets four days out of the 90-day season," said Lawton. "Four days, and they pick the four days they get to hunt on it. Then they steer them to the part of the ranch they want."
The mule deer rut takes place during the middle of November and continues through December. Ranching for Wildlife participants are allowed to hunt mule deer during this time. Critics of the program believe this not only gives hunters an unfair advantage, but also affects the rut and hurts the deer population. Some say the pursuit of mule deer during the rut delays breeding with does and causes some animals to fawn later than others. This leaves fawns not only more susceptible to predators, but also less fit to make it through their first winter because newborn fawns have less of the summer to browse before winter.
"Hunting the deer so late affects the rut," said Lawton. "I see little fawns late in the fall."
Outfitters also believe by allowing hunting during the rut that mature bucks are eliminated from the herd because they are easily harvested while participating in breeding. This allows younger bucks to breed and weakens the genetic strength of the herd.
As part of participating in Ranching for Wildlife, ranchers agree to improve habitat for deer and elk on their property. Critics say they have seen little evidence of habitat improvement. According to Visintainer, the habitat improvement on his ranch comes in the form of relief feed and providing water sources.
Critics of Ranching for Wildlife do believe there can be a happy medium. According to some outfitters, Dick Dodd and the Blue Gravel Ranch have done a commendable job of communicating with outfitters who hunt near the ranch. He was praised for only allowing hunting during normal seasons and for his work on the deer and elk habitat on his ranch.
Calls placed to many Ranching for Wildlife participants were not returned.