TBT: Access in the Political Crosshairs

Published: 
Thursday, September 8, 2016
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Throwback Thursday: From the Vault

As sports men and women don their camouflage or pull on their waders as fall approaches, they are simultaneously being bombarded by ads for political candidates. It’s the ultimate overlap of seasons in the West – hunting and election.

When hunters and fishermen emerge from the wilds and head to the polls, some of the priority issues on many of their minds are public access and habitat protection. And though it is easy to get excited about the thought of open access to hunt and fish across all sorts of landscapes, it is important to consider what it means for the landowner’s incentive to preserve and improve wildlife habitat.

Eight years ago, during the throes of another election cycle, avid hunter Terry Anderson considered the role of the private landowner in preserving public wildlife:  

Whether it is trout streams or habitat for big game and “watchable wildlife,” private landowners provide a plethora of public benefits, sometimes at substantial costs to themselves. For example, a study from Montana State University estimates that on private land in Montana big game animals consume forage worth more than $31 million – forage that would otherwise go to feed the landowner’s livestock. For this, sports people can thank the private landowner who literally provides a free lunch.

But is it enough to depend on the benevolence of the private landowner? The great conservationist Aldo Leopold thought not. He is known for trying to inculcate a “land ethic” in the private landowner, but he knew this was not enough. As he put it, “Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.”

To prevent [overharvesting], fish and game departments were called on to establish and enforce season and bag limits. And, to be sure, these agencies such as the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks did a great deal to restore game to record numbers.

Modern wildlife conservation, however, must go beyond simply setting seasons and bag limits; true conservationists in the tradition of Leopold must find ways of compensating landowners and managers who are stewards of wildlife habitat. The state’s “block management program” does this to a degree, but payments are small. Access leases, whether to outfitters or hunters, provide a greater return and link sports people more directly to the landowner.

States such as Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah have adopted “ranching for wildlife” programs whereby landowners cooperate with state officials in game and habitat management and allow some public (free) hunting in return for tags to sell at the market price. As a result, landowners in those states have an economic incentive to invest in maintaining fish and wildlife habitat, those states have added an economic incentive, which encourages more habitat preservation.

As groups like the Public Land/Water Access Association work to open access points through private lands and Montana Governor Steve Bullock creates a public lands and access agenda that could infringe on property rights of those who own land that borders public lands, sportsmen should carefully consider how these political actions can affect the private landowners who supply valuable wildlife habitat.

One example of public access infringing on property rights actually resulted in loss of wildlife habitat in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana. The Mitchell Slough was an irrigation ditch that private landowners turned into a trout stream by investing millions of dollars. Access advocates wanted to be able to fish the ditch and fought for public access. The courts granted access, and the landowners who had invested in creating trout habitat in the Mitchell lost privacy, property rights, and property value, and they stopped managing the ditch for trout habitat. Landowners shut off supplemental water to the ditch which silted over critical spawning areas and caused trout populations to drop. Fishermen may have won access, but it ended up costing them the very resource they sought to access.

Montana’s constitution guarantees its citizens a right to “a clean and healthful environment,” and private landowners make up a crucial part of supplying this right. Calling for more open access may sound like a no-brainer in many cases, but the Mitchell Slough example shows that we shouldn’t take for granted the important role of incentives in wildlife conservation. This fall, voters should contemplate whether politicians and policies are committed to secure property rights, and sportsmen should consider the private landowners who provide wildlife habitat.


Hannah Downey is the policy and partnerships coordinator and a research fellow at PERC, helping to move projects along from conception to completion. After being introduced to PERC her freshman year of college, she pursued the ideas of free market environmentalism and became a research assistant as a senior. She graduated from Montana State...
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