During the past several years, the Colorado Division of Wildlife has struggled to negotiate contracts with some participants in its Ranching For Wildlife program.
The program allows private landowners to hold hunts during a 90-day period in exchange for allowing public hunters on their land. But DOW problems have focused on difficulties negotiating license allocations with some of the programs' participants.
The DOW only has had problems with four of the program's 29 participants, DOW Wildlife Manager Jerry Apker said. He didn't want to cite specific ranches, but some of the problem ranches are in Moffat County, he said.
The Wildlife Commission will consider new regulations Thursday that would allow the DOW director to cancel contracts when the DOW and ranchers cannot reach an agreement on license allocations.
"If we can't come to an agreement, we're going to go our separate ways," Apker said.
Landowners who participate in Ranching For Wildlife aren't very concerned about the regulation changes proposed for Thursday. They are keeping their eyes on the horizon, where more drastic program changes could be forthcoming.
A group of Moffat County residents, led by Dean Gent, have filed a petition with the DOW requesting that Ranching For Wildlife participants be made to follow the same season structures as other hunters.
Their petition is prompted by a belief that ranchers fail to put sufficient pressure on elk herds to keep them moving during the regular hunting seasons. The elk bunch up on private land, where they are inaccessible to many public hunters.
It's an argument most ranchers reject.
"First of all, I don't think it's my responsibility to assure them there's elk to hunt where they're at," said Pat Grieve, manager of Snake River, a 35,200-acre 10-ranch group 40 miles north of Craig. Average hunter success rates at Snake River for elk, deer and antelope range from 72 percent to 100 percent.
Grieve thinks the ranches he represents should be held responsible only for what happens within their borders. He favors resolving the license allocation issue by setting a standard formula that would determine how many animals should be harvested on a ranch.
If a ranch fails to achieve its harvest objectives, then the ranch should be penalized, he said. Conversely, a ranch that achieves its objectives should be rewarded.
But it's the responsibility of the Wildlife Commission to ensure that herd management objectives are met on the other side of the fence, he said.
Tom Deakins owns a 25,000-acre operation 12 miles west of Craig. Looking at the proposed regulations, he said they wouldn't have much effect on his operation. He was more concerned about changes he thought Gent's petition might cause.
But Deakins, too, said there was nothing he or his ranch could do to incite elk to move around.
"There's nothing anyone can do to get them somewhere," Deakins said.
Elk usually aren't found on Deakins' ranch during the regular hunting seasons, he said. But when elk do migrate to his land later in the fall, public hunters who drew Ranching For Wildlife tags through a DOW lottery still have the opportunity to hunt.
Deakins and Grieve spoke about projects they've undertaken to improve elk habitat. Deakins has re-seeded old hay pastures that previous owners didn't maintain. He's building 14 miles of fence to divide a large pasture into three sections to rotate cattle and improve elk foraging.
"We're not doing anything anyone else can't do," Deakins said.
At Snake River, Grieve said, the ranchers have worked to improve greater sage grouse and songbird habitat as well as big game habitat. They've conducted extensive burns of decadent sagebrush.
The weather is the biggest factor in getting the big game to move, both men said. When the weather is good, hunts are successful. When the weather is poor, hunts are less successful.
The Wildlife Commission will consider the proposed regulations at 2 p.m. Thursday in Denver.
Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or firstname.lastname@example.org.