Petition drives review of DOW program

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— The Colorado Wildlife Commission will review the Ranching for Wildlife program before it allows any new properties to join.

The commission made its decision after a Craig man presented a petition urging changes to Ranching for Wildlife. Dean Gent collected 529 signatures from people throughout Northwest Colorado, and he brought his arguments to the Wildlife Comm-ission's March 12 meeting in Denver. The commission oversees the Colorado Division of Wildlife's policies for wildlife management.

Ranching for Wildlife is a program administered by the DOW. It allows ranches larger than 12,000 acres to schedule private hunts during any 90 days between September and the end of January. In return, the ranches must grant access to a certain number of public hunters. The ranches also must comply with a set of guidelines, including habitat management and hunter satisfaction.

Gent's petition argues that the 90-day structure is unfair to adjoining landowners and hunters on the other side of the fence because animals face unequal hunting pressure, which causes them to congregate on the private land.

Wildlife ranchers counter by pointing out that hundreds of public hunters get the opportunity to hunt on private land that otherwise would be off limits. And the animals found sanctuary on the large ranches before Ranching for Wildlife came into existence, operators argue. Also, the DOW can better manage herd sizes on large ranches if public hunters are given access.

After Gent's presentation, people both for and against the program voiced opinions during a public comment session.

Rick Enstrom, a commissioner from Lakewood, made a motion for a moratorium on new applications until the commission conducts a review of the program. The motion carried with a 5-2 vote.

Don Cook, who operates Big Gulch Ranch north of Craig, attended the meeting on behalf or wildlife ranchers. On Monday, Cook met with fellow operators to discuss the commission's decision.

He said he planned to tell his peers that the commission will review the program.

"We're not sure how in-depth it will be or what will become of it," Cook said.

Gent, too, was unclear what will happen next.

He considered the commission's vote to be a victory in his attempt to restructure Ranching for Wildlife. But Gent reiterated that he wants to see the program continue, with a few modifications.

"We weren't trying to kill the program," Gent said. "We're trying to get it to work for everybody."

The commission did not discuss the 90-day structure in particular, Gent said. Instead, it voted to review the program as a whole.

Although the decision by the Wildlife Commission restricts new applicants, it will have no effect on current Ranching for Wildlife operations or the renewal of their contracts, said Tyler Baskfield, a spokesman for the DOW.

Baskfield anticipated the review process will take several months, and will focus on the particular concerns Gent brought up.

"There's not a lot of specifics right now," Baskfield said. "The commission wants to make sure they're listening to their constituents. They thought it was important enough to learn more about what exactly is taking place with this program."

Baskfield noted that there was a 12 percent increase in the number of harvests in late season and special hunts, including Ranching for Wildlife hunts, from 2002 to 2003.

Such statistics that point to the success of the program will be weighed against the perceived problems, Baskfield said.

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com

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