Kevin Farron

March 8, 2017

How Big-Ticket Tags Open Access and Help Fill the Freezer

A Montana elk tag might stretch the budget for a young out-of-state hunter, but it made this private-land hunt possible in more ways than one

Thirty minutes into glassing, I put down my binoculars and continued to scan the private ranch below me with my naked eye. Suddenly, I saw the tan hide of an elk—solo, like me, and nearly a mile away, I guessed—surrounded by nothing but sagebrush. How had I missed that before? Even with my binos, I couldn’t quite make out the headgear. An elk all by itself? It’s got to be a bull, I thought.

With only a cow tag on me, I kept glassing, and eventually I spotted five antlerless elk at the edge of the timber, a few hundred yards south of the loner bull. Game on. I shed my winter jacket and started running to close the gap and set up for a shot.

That tag, which cost me no small chunk of change, was suddenly burning a hole in my pocket.

An Out-of-State Hunter on a Budget

Having just moved to Montana last fall, I hadn’t yet met the requirement of six months’ residency to purchase in-state tags. Out-of-state licenses run $858 for a bull elk tag, something that I simply couldn’t afford. Instead, friends suggested that I look into an extended shoulder season hunt for cow elk only. These elk B licenses are a bit more reasonable, but still cost about $300. As I was shopping around, I found myself wondering where all of this money goes.

The expense of some tags may make you think the system is designed to keep all but elite hunters out, but I quickly learned that these dollars actually help expand our access.

For starters, every license fee helps to pay state fish and game managers doing the work of conserving habitat and maintaining our access to hunting and fishing. Fees also help fund the research that allows sound conservation practices to ensure hunting and fishing opportunities for future generations. And, in some cases, license fees also pay for access to private land.

The ranch I was hunting was open to me thanks to Montana’s Block Management Area (BMA) program, which is primarily funded by license fees. The revenue generated from out-of-staters, specifically—and technically I still had to count myself among this group—helps carry the program. “Twenty-five percent of BMA funding comes from non-resident combo license fees, with more coming from out-of-state upland bird licenses and everyone else’s hunting access enhancement fees,” says Allen Charles, who served as the coordinator for landowner programs benefitting sportsmen at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks before retirement.

The elk always seem to be just over the fence on private land. Montana’s BMA program seeks to remedy that. Image courtesy of Flickr/photogramma1. Header image courtesy of Lori Iverson of the USFWS.


Block Management Basics

Montana’s BMA program has been around since the 80s, but 1995 is when it started to resemble what it is today. Charles told me that, at that time, 450 private landowners opened public hunting access to 2.5 million acres. Today, more than 1,250 landowners voluntarily participate in the program, opening their gates to more than seven million private acres—and that’s not counting the public lands adjacent to these properties, which would otherwise be difficult, if not impossible, to access.

Participation in the program is voluntary, but landowners receive compensation for opening access. This is where our tag fees come in. “Montana’s budget for the BMA program is around $6.5 million a year,” explains Charles. “Only 10 to 20 percent of that is funded through the federal Pittman-Robertson Act, with the rest coming directly from Montana license fees.”

The cool thing about the tag I scored, besides coming in at a more manageable price, is that it is paired with the possibility of gaining BMA access to hunt just the type of land where elk spend their time in the late fall—the low-country wintering grounds that happen to be primarily private lands. I was signing on to provide a benefit, too, by (hopefully) helping to manage an elk herd that was still overpopulated at the end of the regular hunting season.

Charles says it’s a good alternative for blue-collar hunters, or anyone who can’t afford a private land lease or guided hunt, to access private land.

BMAs provide access to hunt the land where elk spend their time in the late fall—the low-country wintering grounds, primarily private lands. Image courtesy of Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Region 2.


Backstrap Dividends

My investment in an out-of-state license paid off, and I felt as if I’d marked a Montana rite of passage when I finally harvested one of the cows I’d spotted from the hillside. I closed in on the small herd, walking very slowly, eyes wide, looking for any movement through the timber. I crept closer for what felt like an eternity, but was probably just minutes, before the lead cow stepped out in front of me, broadside. I ranged her at 95 yards, steadied, and pulled the trigger.

The investment I made in my late-season tag was a careful one, but now I know the true value of what I was buying. It wasn’t just a chance for me to be out there. (And I wouldn’t have been if not for the license-buying hunters who came before me.) Considering the resulting boost to access and habitat—not to mention the 125 pounds of meat in my freezer or a little help for a landowner who I can now count as my neighbor—that $300 was money well-spent.

Montana’s mid-March application deadline for deer and elk tags is quickly approaching. If you’re trying to decide whether or not to buy an expensive hunting license, just remember that these costs are a down-payment on many benefits for wildlife, access, and the future of our sporting traditions. When you look at it that way, it may seem like a small price to pay.

2 Responses to “How Big-Ticket Tags Open Access and Help Fill the Freezer”

  1. David Dailey

    Our public land heritage is at far greater risk than far to few voters relize. Party line’s are 180 degrees different on keeping public lands in public hands. GOP are simply put, pro privatization, Dem. & Green parties are Teddy Roosevelt pro public land supporters! Far to many voters are voting NRA, yet their vote for GOP is going to a party intent on transferring Fed land to states. Fed land to states will lead to the sale of our public lands. 150 National Forests east and west of Colorado per GOP platform on public lands are to be transfer to states, this is a ” fully supported” by the vast majority of Tea Party/Republicans, until the GOP platform is dropped, the outdoor men & women must vote pro public land as their top priority issue at State, & Federial level. Once lost public lands will forever be gone!

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Kristyn Brady

March 1, 2017

Sportsmen Call on Zinke’s Leadership for Public Lands

Trump’s newest cabinet member has opportunity to support habitat and access on the public lands that are part of our national identity

This morning, in a strongly bipartisan 68-31 vote, U.S. Congressman Ryan Zinke was officially given the top job at the Department of the Interior, where he’ll be responsible for the management of public lands, minerals, migratory birds, and endangered species. Hunters, anglers, and the conservation community look forward to working with Zinke to support habitat conservation, sportsmen’s access, and increased public involvement in the management of America’s public lands.

“More than ever before, we need to see the Secretary of the Interior act with conviction as the nation’s top champion of public lands and foremost arbiter of balanced management for fish and wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation,” says K.C. Walsh, chairman of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Corporate Council and president of Simms Fishing Products in Bozeman, Mont. “The hunting and fishing community is looking forward to working with Secretary Zinke and his staff to improve collaborative conservation of natural resources that are the envy of all the world.”

Image courtesy of Ryan Zinke.

From his earliest days in office, Zinke will be faced with charting a path forward for the Bureau of Land Management’s revised land-use planning process, a rule that is supported by the sporting community but faces an uncertain future. The House voted three weeks ago to block the BLM’s new Planning 2.0 rule, which creates greater agency transparency and gives the public three additional opportunities to weigh in on land-use plans.

If the Senate passes a similar resolution under the Congressional Review Act, it would likely prevent the BLM from ever issuing a rule with substantially similar benefits. Sportsmen are encouraging Congress to take a step back and instead let Zinke lead on making further changes to the rule, while retaining its many benefits.

“We encourage Secretary Zinke to simply solve problems constructively: Bring together diverse stakeholders, and find common ground for the benefit of fish, wildlife, and our sporting traditions,” says Whit Fosburgh, TRCP’s president and CEO. “Sportsmen and women stand ready and willing to help shape a positive future for our public lands. We’re just asking that remaining concerns with the BLM Planning rule are addressed through a process that also keeps all of the improvements made to public lands management.”

During his tenure, Zinke will also oversee the implementation of federal conservation plans created to keep the greater sage grouse off the endangered species list.

“We’re hopeful that having a true sportsman in this role will be positive for sage grouse as well as the other iconic game species dependent upon conservation of sagebrush habitat, like mule deer and pronghorn antelope,” says Miles Moretti, president of the Mule Deer Foundation. “Hunters, ranchers, and other stakeholders are ready to work with Sec. Zinke to safeguard many traditional uses of this landscape through collaborative conservation.”

The TRCP and other sportsmen’s groups came out in support of Zinke’s nomination in December 2016, based mainly on his opposition to privatizing or transferring federal public lands to individual states. In June 2016, Zinke was the only member of the House Natural Resources Committee to cross party lines and vote against a bill that would allow states to acquire up to two million acres of national forest lands to be managed primarily for timber production, locking Americans out of our public lands. Later this summer, he resigned as a delegate to the Republican nominating convention because of the party’s position on the transfer of federal public lands to the states. Zinke is also in favor of full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses revenues from offshore oil and gas production to conserve important natural resources and open public access.

More than 50,000 Americans have signed a petition opposing the sale or transfer of our public lands. Learn more here.

Mia Sheppard

February 27, 2017

Elliott State Forest: The Poster Child for What Could Happen to America’s Public Lands

There can be no confusion—Western states are in the business of selling public lands to make ends meet

Last week, the Oregon State Land Board voted to sell 82,000 acres of one of the most celebrated public lands in Oregon—the Elliott State Forest. The sale was on and then off and then on again in an ongoing saga, but now its fate seems relatively sealed: The Elliott is the poster child for what could happen to America’s public lands in the hands of individual states.

For Sale: One Public Lands Legacy

The Elliott is considered one of the best recreation areas on the Oregon coast, as it borders Loon Lake and is very close to the BLM’s Dean Creek Elk Management Area and Golden and Silver Falls State Natural Area, providing unmatched experiences for local hunters, anglers, and wildlife enthusiasts. The lush forest and steep hillsides are layered with tall fir and cedar trees that provide phenomenal habitat for Roosevelt elk. Wild trout, steelhead, and salmon can all be found running the cool waters within the forest as well.

In support of the Common School Fund—established in 1859 to benefit Oregon’s public education system—state trust lands like the Elliott are used to generate revenue, mostly through sustainable timber harvest. However, recent restrictions and lawsuits have limited logging, and ownership of the forest has actually been a financial drain on the state, rather than a source of income. The state started talking about selling back in June of 2014.

The Elliott State Forest provides phenomenal habitat for Roosevelt elk. Image courtesy of Dean Finnerty. Header image courtesy of Oregon Department of Forestry.
A Lose-Lose for Our Kids

As a mother, I can speak for the Oregonians caught in the middle—we want to raise our kids camping, hiking, hunting, and fishing in the outdoors, but we also care deeply about our state’s school system and whether it’s properly funded. I would very much like to find a solution for public education, but not at the risk of robbing our kids of valuable time spent on public lands.

For Dean Finnerty, a longtime hunter and outfitter—and a father—what’s happening with the Elliott is personal, too. Last year, I explored some of his favorite parts of the forest with him. As we drove down gravel roads, twisting and turning through stands of trees, he explained the situation from a hunter’s perspective. “The forests surrounding the Elliott are mostly privately owned and during archery season each and every year, all of the private lands are totally closed off to public access. For a sportsmen like myself, the only game in town is the Elliott!”

Dean and I came to a road blocked by a gate with a ‘No trespassing’ sign nailed to a tree. “The land behind the gate is one of several parcels sold by the state early on,” Dean explained. “It used to be a part of the Elliott State Forest, but is now owned by a private timber company. My boys and I used to hunt fall and spring black bear and pursue elk during archery season on that land. Not anymore.”

“The forests surrounding the Elliott are mostly privately owned and during archery season each and every year, all of the private lands are totally closed off to public access.” Image courtesy of Dean Finnerty.
Don’t Hand Over Our Land

With the sale of the Elliott now official, many other sportsmen will have similar stories to tell. At this point, there is no clear action to prevent the sale. The best thing we can do—both as parents and as Americans who care deeply about the future of our hunting and fishing traditions—is to stay engaged to prevent the mismanagement and sale of other public lands.

A good first step will be keeping our lawmakers from handing more of our national public lands over to the states. After all, Western states have proven over time that they are in the business of selling land to make ends meet. Oregon alone has already sold all but 776,000 acres of the 3.4 million acres it was granted upon statehood. Learn more and sign the petition supporting public lands at sportsmensaccess.org.

It’s up to us to make sure this example ends with the Elliott.

TAKE ACTION and help keep the Elliott State Forest in public hands. 

Jonathan Stumpf

February 16, 2017

Passionate Steelheaders Could Be a Force in the Fight for Our Public Lands

A rare breed, the anglers who choose to pursue wild steelhead single-mindedly have just what it takes to stamp out threats to public access, especially when some of the best waters are on the line

I consider myself lucky to live in Washington State. As an avid steelhead angler, I’m at the epicenter of some of the best steelhead fishing in the Lower 48 (sorry, Oregon and California.) We enjoy just 13 million acres of national public lands—a paltry amount when compared to other Western states. But with the high deserts of the east and the coastal rainforests of the west side, the splendor of the places Washingtonians have to pursue this iconic game fish more than makes up for what the state lacks in overall acreage of public lands.

winter steelhead public lands Washington
Image courtesy of Chris Ringlee.

Unfortunately, wild steelhead are in serious decline—12 of the 15 populations on the West Coast are listed as threatened or endangered species, and the root cause of their collapse is heavily debated among anglers and fisheries managers. I’ve witnessed hours-long heated discussions about the impact of single-barbless and treble hooks on species survival. In fact, we get so caught up in whether to worry about overharvest, dams, hatcheries, or ocean conditions, that we’re failing to fight for the public lands that provide us with our best days on the water.

When some lawmakers talk about disposing of public lands, they’re talking about trading off your access to places like the mountainous headwaters of Washington’s Methow River in the Okanogan National Forest, which is considered one of the last strongholds for Columbia Basin summer-run fish, or some of the finest runs of summer steelhead in Oregon’s North Umpqua River. They’re toying with your ability to get to Idaho’s iconic Snake River via BLM land or hold a wild steelhead in Alaska’s vast and relatively untouched Tongass National Forest. Even the access provided by Washington’s Olympic National Forest to the river corridors of the Sol Duc and Queets, where dime-bright winter-run fish swim to their natal waters from November through May, could be closed off forever.

summer steelhead Olympic National Forest
Image courtesy of Luke Kelly.

You get the point. In state or private hands, the needs of steelhead or anglers will not be a priority on these lands—nor will the interests of hunters, hikers, bikers, or American families. The habitat could suffer under a different management model or inevitable lack of funding for upkeep, creating more trouble for the species that are already in a precarious situation.

Steelheaders are a passionate bunch—you’d have to be to brave the winter conditions we do without blinking an eye. That’s why we could truly be a force in the fight for our public lands. We don’t need to abandon our debate over the best approach for restoring steelhead populations, but we can’t afford to have the rug pulled out from under us in the meantime. As sportsmen, and as steelheaders, the simplest thing we can do to help ensure the future of the species and our fishing opportunities is to speak up for habitat AND our access to America’s public lands. It isn’t an either-or proposition.

Mia Sheppard

February 15, 2017

No Trespassing Signs on Public Lands? It Isn’t What You Think

These days, it seems that everybody wants a piece of America’s public lands all to themselves. But the strategists behind the land transfer movement aren’t the only ones creating confusion to keep you from your public lands.

This fall, we received the following inquiry from a hunter in Oregon.

Q: What should I do when I find a “no trespassing” sign on public lands?

To whom it may concern,

I have a question regarding the posting of ‘No Trespassing’ signs on public land. I hunt late-season blacktails on public land in the Soda Mountain Wilderness of southern Oregon. The wilderness is adjacent to BLM lands and private lands.

I use the OnXMaps mapping service on my phone, and I always make sure to stay off of private land while I’m hunting, so I thought it was weird when I saw ‘No Trespassing’ signs posted within the wilderness boundaries. Even though I assumed the signs were incorrectly placed, I stayed off of the so-called private property and headed down the hill to my truck. At the trailhead, there was a landowner trying to find who had been hunting on his property. He threatened to have the trailhead closed and to prosecute the alleged trespasser to the maximum extent of the law. He wasn’t specifically accusing me, but was heavily insinuating it.

I pursued the issue and looked up BLM and wilderness maps online; they all showed that the landowner had placed ‘No Trespassing’ signs well into public lands.

It seems like there should be a significant penalty for this misconduct, but I cannot find any information regarding this issue.

Any tips or recommendations would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you for your time.

-Jason Y.
Coos Bay, OR

The line between public and private lands must be respected, from both sides. Image courtesy of Mia Sheppard.

We thought it was an excellent question because, as in the fight against state takeover of national public lands, we don’t believe the hunting and fishing public should get locked out so that a select few can benefit.

A: Let officials know, and be courteous.

From my point of view as a fellow Oregon public lands hunter, I can understand why you’d want to avoid this kind of confrontation and get to the bottom of things. It’s hard to say whether this landowner truly was mistaken about his property line or putting on an aggressive show. I reached out to Sean Carothers, a former BLM law enforcement officer in central Oregon, for his take on what to do next.

“I would contact the appropriate BLM district—I believe that’s the Medford District—and ask to speak with the law enforcement staff there,” says Carothers. “The BLM has regulations about ‘Interfering with Lawful Use’ and posting public lands as private is a classic example of that.

“At the very least, a ranger will go out and remove the signs. If it’s possible to identify the person who put the signs up, they will contact them and clear up any confusion about where the boundaries are and document the conversation so if it happens again, there’s a record for future enforcement. It could be a simple misunderstanding or it could be someone claiming public lands as his own. Either way, if the land truly is public, the signs are illegal and the district should do something,” he says.

The way I see it, in these vast landscapes interwoven with public and private lands, the improved mobile mapping technology we have at our disposal is now more accurate than what we had decades ago, but that doesn’t make them flawless. Fences or ‘No Trespassing’ signs may be misplaced, but we as sportsmen need to be respectful, and give the landowners the benefit of the doubt.

If you have any question, please take the higher ground and heed Sean’s advice: Call the BLM and let their law enforcement experts handle it. Be sure to take note of the precise location as well. Screenshots of your maps, pictures of the fences or signs, as well as the coordinates of your whereabouts are all good to pass on. The BLM can take it from there.

“Fences or ‘No Trespassing’ signs may be misplaced, but we as sportsmen need to be respectful, and give the landowners the benefit of the doubt.” Image courtesy of Mia Sheppard.

Part of being public lands proud and an original conservationist is being a good steward of the land—this includes respect for both public and private boundaries, even when you’re in the right and someone else might be mistaken. Someday you might need to knock on that landowner’s door to ask his permission to retrieve lawfully taken game that crossed onto his accurately marked property.

It’s important to remember that we’re all doing PR for hunting and fishing, in every social media post and every interaction with a non-sportsman. And we’ll come to rely on the image and relationships we’ve built as we work to uphold Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation legacy and our country’s rich history of public lands access.

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