Ranching for Wildlife program 'vexing'

There's been a controversy slowly brewing about the Ranching for Wildlife program over the last four of five years.

Hunters on public lands in Northwest Colorado have witnessed large numbers of elk amass just across fence lines on private land during the three public rifle seasons. Many hunters are convinced the program -- and its flexible 90-day season -- allows outfitters on huge ranches to manipulate herd movement and keep the elk out of the reach of the average hunter.

It's a vexing situation, particularly here, because hunting is so vital to the local economy. And while local hunters can make valid claims about seeing elk herds bunched up on private land, it's impossible to point fingers or relegate Ranching for Wildlife to the realm of bad policy making.

State officials have been forthcoming about the perceived failures of the program, but they say the alternative -- dismantling the program -- solves nothing and possibly hinders the number of kills needed to keep the herd numbers in check.

One group has circulated a petition asking the DOW to change the Ranching for Wildlife regulations so that outfitters have to hold hunts during the same days as the regular rifle seasons -- something many outfitters say they do anyway.

This group, led by small ranchers Dean Gent and Ron Lawton, think it would equalize hunting pressure and disperse the elk herds across more miles. They don't want to see an end to the program, just changes that make it more equitable.

But the 90-day season is the only incentive large landholders have for opening their property to public hunters. Without that, they would have no reason to participate in the program, which gives Colorado residents the opportunity to hunt in prime habitat for just the cost of a license. Yet, ranchers could continue to command fees for guided hunts and manage herds on their lands exactly the way they've been doing.

It's a prickly problem for the DOW, which has to balance the demands of all stakeholders in the lucrative hunting industry against basic biological needs of the elk herds. The DOW is a data-driven agency that relies heavily on statistics to guide the big game season hunting structure. DOW officials point to figures that show virtually no change in the number of elk taken before 1998 -- the year the Ranching for Wildlife took on its current proportions -- and after.

What has changed is the size of the elk herds. They've been growing, raising fears about the transmission of deadly diseases within the herds and damage to agricultural land. If the DOW took the 90-day season off the table as an incentive to big private ranchers and they backed out of the program, it would make it harder, rather than easier, to cull the herds.

The effect would be throwing the baby out with the bath water.

The biggest problem is that the elk migrate each fall from national forest land onto a checkerboard of private and public lands, making the Ranching for Wildlife program a more contentious issue here than in other parts of the state.

But considering the alternatives, Ranching for Wildlife remains an important management tool for the DOW and should be continued, warts and all.

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