John Cornell

March 16, 2017

Our Work’s Cut Out for Us on Public Lands (and We Like It That Way)

A sandhill crane hunt in New Mexico that wouldn’t have been possible without a lot of scouting and some die-hard devotion to public lands

Hunting sandhill cranes in southern New Mexico is one of the many hunting traditions my buddies and I enjoy every year in this beautiful state. Several years ago on a cold, early January morning, we headed toward the border in the pre-dawn light. As we got closer, we could hear the distinctive call from thousands of sandhill cranes roosting on a playa one quarter of a mile across the border. There was no need to tote silhouette decoys for this hunt thanks to our extensive scouting. My five buddies and I knew where the birds were headed at first light, and we intended to be waiting for them.

Shortly after daylight, our month-long pre-hunt scouting groundwork paid off. A feeding frenzy led the birds right to the cut grain fields directly behind us. They came in steady waves, directly over our heads, so we had plenty of opportunities. The limit is three cranes per hunter per day, and we came just two birds short of limiting out in one morning. The other two fell from the sky that evening.

I’m proud to say that we all went home with more than enough “ribeye in the sky” to justify the expense of the hunt, but the experience would have been worth it either way. Knowing we’d soon taste those juicy strips of grilled crane breast was just a tasty bonus.

This year, we repeated this tradition with another successful hunt in the northwest part of Doña Ana County close to and on the Rio Grande River. The six of us were hunting public lands on a diversion reservoir in Doña Ana County, one of five counties in New Mexico that recently passed official resolutions supporting public lands. Simply put, without our national public lands, hunts like ours would not be possible.

Like a growing number of county commissioners across the West, Doña Ana elected officials chose to recognize the cultural importance and economic benefits of public lands within their county. A total of 26 pro-public-lands resolutions have been passed by county and municipal governments across the West in the past two years. This is part of a major movement to prove the value of national public lands to detractors who would transfer or sell them off forever. The five counties behind resolutions in New Mexico—Doña Ana, Santa Fe, Bernalillo, Taos, and San Miguel counties—represent one million residents, or nearly half the state’s population, whose lives are improved by the proximity to public lands.

My friends and I were lucky enough to draw coveted permits for the blink-of-an-eye sandhill crane season, just two days long in the southwest portion of the state, and take full advantage of the public lands we love. That includes plenty of pre-season scouting if you hope to be in the action on opening day. Cranes have keen senses and once an area is hunted they usually don’t return to give you a second chance.

When it comes to our public lands, nothing is ever certain. You might get the luck of the draw during tag season, and perhaps a fortunate wind on opening day. But whether we limit out or not, sportsmen and women have to keep doing the work to defend our access and keep public lands well managed. Here’s a good start: Sign the petition at sportsmensaccess.org to let your legislators know that public lands are a critical part of our sporting heritage.

3 Responses to “Our Work’s Cut Out for Us on Public Lands (and We Like It That Way)”

  1. Jesse Juen

    Growing up in Texas, I never had the opportunity to hunt or fish without paying for a lease or knowing friends or family that owned property where they would allow hunting or fishing. I spent a career managing our wonderful public lands and cherish this amazing tradition that allows me and my fellow citizens to experience the joy of hunting, fishing and recreating on public lands. Let’s work together to make sure it stays that way.

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Julia Peebles

March 14, 2017

Three National Wildlife Refuges Nearly Taken Down by Public Land Transfer Advocates

Let’s not take these hunting and fishing havens for granted after 114 years of conservation and public access benefits

Today, the conservation community celebrates the anniversary of the National Wildlife Refuge System, exactly 114 years after Theodore Roosevelt founded the first refuge to conserve habitat on Pelican Island in 1903. These days, the refuge system is often overlooked, though it is a jewel among the diverse set of public landscapes in America, with 850 million acres in more than 560 wildlife refuges across the country.

The hunting and fishing opportunities provided by refuges have been greatly expanded over the years, but national wildlife refuges get a lot less glory than national parks and forests—or even the BLM lands popular with Western sportsmen. As recently as six months ago, some lawmakers took advantage of this fact and worked to undermine the importance of refuges while setting a dangerous precedent for transferring management authority to the states. This would have meant one foot in the door toward largescale disposal of America’s publicly lands and, along with them, access to the places where we carry out our hunting and fishing traditions.

Here are three less-than-obvious attacks on national wildlife refuges that were ultimately exposed as public land transfer ploys.

The Bundy Standoff
malheur national wildlife refuge
A group of mule deer bucks moves across Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Image courtesy of Barbara Wheeler/USFWS.

Who could forget the early-2016 occupation that kept Americans from accessing the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon for 41 days? The militants who orchestrated the takeover were armed with disillusions about returning the land back to the locals, while they were really keeping the true owners and guardians of the refuge out. When all was said and done, real conservation was blocked and the refuge was forced to pass millions of dollars in damages on to the American taxpayer.

A False Promise for Puerto Rico
vieques national wildlife refuge
Vieques Beach at Vieques National Wildlife Refuge in Puerto Rico. Image courtesy of USFWS.

Last May, lawmakers introduced legislation that would transfer thousands of acres of the popular Vieques National Wildlife Refuge to Puerto Rico as part of a package meant to help with a looming debt crisis. This bill had the potential to set the stage for a fire sale to private interests in order to raise money to pay down debts. But as powerful economic engines that generate jobs and tax revenue, national public lands are part of the economically sustainable future, not part of the problem. Sportsmen objected, and the transfer provision was removed from the legislation.

An Almost East-Coast Blunder
Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge
Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge on the Massachusetts sea shore. Image courtesy of USFWS.

In a quiet victory, cooler heads prevailed after transfer of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts was offered as a possible legislative solution to an ongoing dispute between the refuge managers and several local elected officials. The very permanent transfer option, which would impact fishing on the refuge and set a precedent for transfer, was ultimately rescinded and other means of resolution were explored. This was a great reminder that, no matter our challenges in managing public lands—and there are many—giving them up entirely is not a workable solution.

Too Valuable to Overlook

Wildlife refuges bring outdoor recreation within reach of major cities or they system promotes hunting- and fishing-driven spending in rural America. As sportsmen and women, we can’t afford to take any of our public lands for granted — celebrate our National Wildlife Refuges on their 114th anniversary today!

Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge.
The author with her dog at Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia.

Let’s celebrate them this week, as we mark another year of hunting, fishing, and conservation in America’s refuges.

If you want to help us educate lawmakers on the real value of public lands, and block future legislative attacks in sheep’s clothing, then sign the petition at sportsmensaccess.org. For every signature, we send a letter to your local, state, and national lawmakers about this critical issue.

Rob Thornberry

March 9, 2017

Arm in Arm, Public Land Users Are a Force to Be Reckoned With

One of the largest public land rallies in recent memory brought together the many diverse groups that value access to the outdoors—and are prepared to fight for it

Nearly 3,000 people rallied in support of public lands on the steps of the Capitol in Boise, Idaho, on Saturday, and their diversity was a powerful statement about the importance of the outdoors. It was a mosaic of individual interests as unique as Idaho itself.

There was an angler in full regalia talking to the rafter who had a polite sign affixed to his paddle that he constantly waved over his head. It said, “Please leave my lands alone.” There were three elk hunting buddies who couldn’t not believe the size of the crowd. There were the grey beards of Idaho’s small-but-potent environmental community, those people who knew Frank Church personally and have spent decades advocating for the outdoors. The endurance running community was there—the wiry kin who can run Idaho’s tallest peaks by lunch and then dance all night.

Organizers said roughly 3,000 people attended Saturday’s rally at the Idaho Capitol. Participants included hunters, bikers, rafters, hikers, bikers, and bird-watchers. Image courtesy of Kate Thorpe, Idahoans for Public lands.

Four newspapers, three television stations, and two radio stations joined bloggers and volunteers watching the vast crowd spill into Jefferson Street. The rally was an effort that the TRCP was proud to help coordinate. It was a non-denominational celebration of the happiness that we all attain pursuing our own diverse adventures in the outdoors.

But the day’s diversity was only half the day’s story. In the rain on Idaho Day, those diverse groups gave voice to one cause: keeping public lands in public hands.

Speaker after speaker recalled their favorite public lands experiences and the need to fight interests that would give our heritage away. Ryan Callaghan, director of conservation for First Lite, a hunting gear manufacturer based in Ketchum, talked about public lands being the backbone of a self-sustaining industry. “I came to Idaho for a job. I stayed in Idaho because of public lands,” he said to the flag-waving crowd. “And First Lite wouldn’t be here without public lands.”

Merin Tigert, a fifth-generation Idahoan and lifelong hunter, spoke of her fears about a future where elected officials would fall for “the folly of short-term fiscal gains over long-term intrinsic values.” Her message was echoed by Martin Hackworth, executive director of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a nationwide partnership of off-highway vehicle enthusiasts. Public lands taught him lessons that, he argued, his children deserved to learn.

A diverse group of Idaho public-land users gave voice to one cause: keeping public lands in public hands.

The thread in all their impassioned pleas was undeniable. The outdoors called to each of them differently, but everyone in the crowd felt the call to speak up for why they treasured public lands. “As citizens of the United States, public land is our birthright,” said Hackworth. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s a source of national pride and something I’m not eager to surrender.”

Rialin Flores, Legislative Associate of Conservation Voters for Idaho, agreed and called for the diverse group of interests to stick together. “What these public lands mean to each of us is personal,” Flores said as she invited the rally to flood the Capitol’s rotunda. “What they mean to all of us is powerful.”

On a rainy Saturday in Boise, diversity showed unity. We should celebrate that as we work to keep public lands public.

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.

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.



As our nation rebounds from the COVID pandemic, policymakers are considering significant investments in infrastructure. Hunters and anglers see this as an opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations.

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