A petition circulating in Moffat and Routt counties seeks changes in the state Division of Wildlife's Ranching for Wildlife program to stop what one critic calls the harboring of elk herds on private land.
Dean Gent, a retired sheep herder and a member of the Moffat County Land Use Board, started circulating the petition about a month ago with the help of a small circle of like-minded friends.
Gent said some landowners and the outfitters who coordinate hunts on their lands are employing techniques to "bunch up" elk herds and keep them from straying onto public land.
Gent said he timed the petition to coincide with the Colorado Wildlife Commission's review of its big game season structure.
Every five years the commission seeks public input on decisions that will determine wildlife management policies, license sales and other aspects of big game hunting. Today marks the deadline for submitting comments on several proposals, which the commission will use to establish regulations for the 2005-2009 seasons.
Gent's petition doesn't propose ending the Ranching for Wildlife program, but seeks provisions that will force private landowners to hold hunts during the same days and hours as the regular hunting season on public lands. "The object to be to achieve equal hunting pressure on the elk herds of Colorado," the petition states.
"We do that anyway," said Dick Dodds, who operates Elkhorn Outfitters north of Craig. Dodds' outfit has been recognized three years in a row for "Outstanding Performance in Hunter Satisfaction," which is based on DOW survey results from "public" hunters who draw elk tags for hunts on private ranches.
The Ranching for Wildlife program allows private landowners with at least 12,000 contiguous acres to offer bull licenses that they can market for trophy fees. But 10 percent must be set aside for Colorado residents who get to the opportunity to hunt for a bull for the cost of a license. They don't have to pay the premium fees that non-resident hunters are willing to pay thousands of dollars for.
The program also gives resident hunters 100 percent of cow licenses and equal access to all parts of the ranch that are hunted by private clients.
"It's a good program for everyone," Dodds said. "It gives public hunters a quality hunting experience on prime habitat that's been taken care of by good land managers. It opens good land that some people wouldn't normally have access to."
The program helps the state achieve herd management objectives and generates additional revenue for Moffat County businesses by drawing more hunters to the area, Dodds said.
Last year, he hosted about 350 public hunters at Big Gulch Ranch and Blue Gravel Ranch. Each had a crack at up to two cows. If every hunter spent as little as $200 on gas and supplies, it would mean $70,000 in sales for local businesses.
Of the 23 ranches currently enrolled in the Ranching for Wildlife program, eight are in Moffat County and 12 are in either Routt or Moffat counties, according to the DOW Web site. DOW officials could not be reached for comment Monday because state offices were closed due to the Presidents' Day holiday.
Gent said not all landowners are scrupulous about holding hunts on private lands at the same time that hunters are patrolling public lands.
"Some of them do and some of them don't," he said. "If they would all have public hunters hunting cows at the same time as rifle season for the rest of us, then they'd achieve equal hunting pressure. But they don't all do that.
"I'm not going to pick out people and name names," he added. "That's the DOW's job to oversee this Ranching for Wildlife program and control elk numbers. But I think we all need to come together and get elk numbers down and get them scattered more. There's too many places where hunters can't get to them and some small landowners don't even get a crack."
The Ranching for Wildlife program allows private land managers a 90-day season to coordinate hunts for public hunters and private clients. By Ranching for Wildlife guidelines, hunters can hunt in the rut and can hunt with rifles during archery or muzzleloading season.
Mitchell Walz, an outfitter on the Deakins Ranch in Moffat County, said he arranges public hunts to coincide with the regular rifle season.
"The petition talks about harboring wildlife," he said. "That's a crock."
Walz said he didn't think the petition would stop the Wildlife Commission from renewing the program.
"It concerns me, naturally, just because of my livelihood, but I don't think it's going to hold up."
Gent's not alone in trying to sway public opinion on a matter before the Wildlife Commission.
Earlier this month, the Northwest Chapter of the Colorado Outfitters Association encouraged business owners in the area to contact the DOW and register their opinions regarding the ratio of elk and deer licenses issues to residents versus nonresidents.
"We believe that if there is any ratio, it should be 60 percent resident and a guaranteed 40 percent nonresident license quota," the association wrote in a letter to business owners. "There are a number of sportsmen's groups in the state that would like to see this ratio reduced to 80 percent resident and 20 percent nonresident. The problem with this ratio is that it would create a great loss of income to the Colorado economy, Colorado outfitters and Western Slope communities that rely on the money spent by the nonresident deer and elk hunters ... "
Gent said he didn't know how many signatures had been collected on the petitions, but that he and his friends would gather them up soon and present them to the commission in March.