Ranching for Wildlife has been called a great game management tool. It's also been referred to as "poaching for wildlife."
The program gives large landowners the flexibility to arrange hunts during 90 days over a five-month period.
But landowners on the other side of the fence, who have smaller operations, must abide by the Colorado Division of Wildlife's season structure and dates.
The disparity has created friction because some landowners feel the Ranching for Wildlife operators exercise too much control over elk herds on their properties.
A local man named Dean Gent is on the agenda of Friday's Colorado Wildlife Commission meeting to present his case that Ranching for Wildlife should be restructured.
Gent thinks the Ranching for Wildlife operators should obey an identical set of hunting season dates as the rest of the public. He's been distributing a petition to that effect, to convince the Wildlife Commission to change the structure to "achieve equal hunting pressure on the elk herds of Colorado."
Unless the season dates are identical, Ranching for Wildlife operators can selectively hunt the elk that accumulate on their ranches and harbor giant herds of animals, said Ron Lawton, one of the petition's supporters.
Lawton runs a ranch north of Craig, below Black Mountain, in the path of a seasonal elk migration that brings thousands of animals out of the forest in the fall.
As the animals move west, some ranches hunt the elk from the west in measured, unobtrusive bursts. The result is that animals discontinue their migration. Since the ranches can spread out their clientele over such a long period, there is little disruption to the herd to make it move outside the ranch, Lawton said.
"The trick is, they can start and stop that 90-day period any time they want," Lawton said.
From the first day of archery season on Aug. 28, to the last day in January, Ranching for Wildlife operators can offer 90 days of hunting, although they have to negotiate those dates with the DOW's Ranching for Wildlife coordinator.
On any given day during the fall, giant groups of elk can be seen on the ridges off County Road 18 north of Craig. Many pickups will be lined up on the roadside with occupants glassing animals.
That herd and that phenomenon are largely an effect of Ranching for Wildlife, Lawton said.
"The solution is to put both equal pressure on both sides of the fence at the same time," Lawton said.
Don Cook manages Big Gulch ranch north of Craig. A consortium of six ranches makes up the Ranching for Wildlife operation. According to Cook, the petition leaves out an important detail.
"What the petition fails to state is that the reason big ranches were afforded this opportunity was because they had a lot of wildlife on their property already," Cook said. "It's not like they magically appeared when the program began."
The ranches were running successful hunting operations even before Ranching for Wildlife, Cook said.
And what some might call harboring, others call good management.
"There is no hoarding of elk," Cook said. "Elk have to have some place to chew their cud, lay down and care for their young every day. If no one on the migration route affords them that opportunity, they'll keep moving until they find it."
The elk find it, Cook said, on ranches that manage with the animals' interests in mind.
When Sheriff Buddy Grinstead weighed in on the issue, he also pointed to the animal's natural desire for a sanctuary. Grinstead wrote a letter to the Wildlife Commission in opposition to Gent's petition.
"As elk migrate down it is really a matter of running a gauntlet," Grinstead wrote. "The hunters just push them off of the property or off of the public ground. This is usually done by pushing the wildlife with their vehicles. This isn't an issue caused by RFW; this is an issue caused by the management style and practices of the outfitter or private property owner."
Even if Ranching for Wildlife did not exist, the landowners would have no mandate to ensure "equal pressure," said the DOW's Ranching for Wildlife coordinator, Jerry Apker. The landowners could still selectively hunt the elk using methods that don't make the elk flee. And large herds in all likelihood would still accumulate.
Still, Lawton maintains that forcing wildlife ranchers to follow the same season structure would result in more pressure. Instead of guiding five hunters a week and spreading them out over 90 days, the operators would have to put many more hunters on the land in a shorter period of time.
But the program might not survive if wildlife ranchers had to endure another dictate from the DOW.
"If you twist somebody's arm hard enough, they're going to back away from the table," Apker said.
Apker meets with Ranching for Wildlife operators to discuss season dates, management objectives and other issues related to the program. If the DOW removed the 90-day structure from the list of incentives, it could be a deal breaker for the landowners who participate, Apker said.
"The big question is, if a ranch is not in Ranching for Wildlife, would it continue to run hunting at all?" Apker said. "Even if they continued (guiding hunts), they would not hunt so heavily as to blow the animals off the land."
Cook said he and his colleagues would not stay in the program if the 90-day allowance was rescinded.
"There's no incentive if it goes back to the way it was," Cook said. "If it went back, everybody I work with would get out."
Cook said Big Gulch lets 450 public hunters on the land each season. That practice would have to end if wildlife ranchers had a mandate to hunt only during the four public rifle seasons.
Tracking the numbers
Apker, Lawton and Gent agree about a few things.
All of them agree that elk herds in Northwest Colorado have grown. And all of them agree that Ranching for Wildlife is important because it puts public hunters on the private land and could help bring those herd numbers down.
"I'm not against Ranching for Wildlife," Lawton said. "We need Ranching for Wildlife, but it needs to be more equitable for the adjoining landowners and hunters."
Gent and Lawton say Ranching for Wildlife contributes to hunter frustration and lower success on the other side of the fence. The ranches are hospitable. The elk stay there. And hunters who don't have a Ranching for Wildlife permit can't get near them.
It's especially frustrating, Lawton said, when there is no activity inside the ranch while a public hunting season brings many hunters to adjoining parcels on the periphery.
"I'd be dishonest to say there is equal pressure," Apker said. But he disagrees that the inequity is causing fewer hunters to have successful hunts.
Apker tracked harvest data, looking for trends that might validate Gent's claim.
"I promised Dean I'd look into it," Apker said.
From year to year, success rates for hunters vary widely. In 1999, the overall success rate in Colorado was about 7 percent. One year later, 25 percent of the hunters filled their tags.
That phenomenon was directly related to weather conditions, Apker said.
"That degree of variation can't be explained by Ranching for Wildlife. It has to be weather."
Apker went on to track harvest data since 1991. He used information from two data analysis units (DAUs) in Moffat County. He compared harvest statistics in two eras. From 1991 to 1997, relatively few Ranching for Wildlife participants were in the program. In 1998, there was a boom and numerous ranches joined. Apker compared the success rates in each era. In DAU E-2, where the Bears Ears herd lives, the success rate was 25.2 percent in the 1991 to 1997 period. From 1998 to 2002, the success rate did not drop, but rose four percent despite many more ranches participating.
In DAU E-6, where the White River herd lives, the success rate was 24.5 percent in the first era and 28.5 percent after 1998.
Ranching for Wildlife did not impact hunter success rates, Apker said.
Apker also compared bow-hunter success in DAUs E-2 and E-6. Some petitioners have said it's unfair that wildlife ranchers can hunt with rifles when public hunters are still in archery season.
But Apker found the success rate was exactly 13.6 percent in both the 1991 to 1997 period, as well as post-1998.
"No matter how I look at it in terms of success, I can't see an effect on our ability to achieve harvest objectives," Apker said.
"That doesn't mean the animals aren't moving the way they used to, or they way Gent perceived they used to."
Herds too big
But the harvests still have not managed to decrease the size of the herds. And that is affecting those who have nothing to do with hunting.
Ivan Kawcak doesn't hunt and he doesn't charge people to hunt on his land northeast of Craig. His interests are agricultural. But even Kawcak perceives a change in the way elk move and he attributes it to Ranching for Wildlife.
Since Ranching for Wildlife operators arrange hunts from September all the way into January, it keeps the animals spooked and moving back and forth through his property long after the public hunting season is over, Kawcak said.
In the process, the animals tear up his fences and eat his winter wheat or otherwise destroy it by bedding down in it.
"Rather than moving out like they normally would, the elk are going back and forth. It puts them there another two months longer," said Kawcak's wife, Regina. "It's gotten way out of hand."
The Kawcaks share Gent's and Lawton's view that Ranching for Wildlife's 90-day season just seems unfair on its face.
"We have always thought it should be the same season," Regina Kawcak said. "We're not sure about the original purpose. I don't know why it isn't part of the regular season."
This weekend, Gent will collect the numerous petitions he's been circulating in Northwest Colorado and take them with him to the Wildlife Commission. His presentation begins at 10 a.m. on Friday at the Hunter Education Building in Denver.
Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or firstname.lastname@example.org