Hunting's Dilemma: Balancing Cost, Access and Opportunity

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Forty years ago, when an angry wife confronted her husband about the amount of time he spent chasing wild animals, he could defend his actions by reminding her about the low-cost meat the outings provided. During that era, going hunting usually meant grabbing a shotgun after work and walking out the back door into a neighboring field or woodlot looking for rabbits or other upland game. Licenses were inexpensive and equipment needs were modest. Hunting big game was often not an alternative, because populations were still recovering from near decimation at the turn of the century.

Now a hunting trip is more likely to involve months of planning, getting lucky enough to draw a big game permit, then loading up an ATV, camp trailer or both and driving to a distant location in a four-wheel drive vehicle. And today even the most gullible spouses recognize that each pound of "free meat" a hunter brings home costs more than a prime rib dinner at a fancy restaurant.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of hunters declined 7.3% between 1991 and 2001. At the same time, the amount of money spent on hunting has soared. The International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies reported that in 2001 (the latest year in which complete data was available) hunting generated $25 billion in retail sales, $17 billion in salaries and wages, and more than $3 billion in federal and state income taxes.

What was once viewed primarily as just a recreational activity has become big business, employing about 600,000 Americans.

As the economic value of hunting increased, acreage available to hunters decreased. While urban sprawl and development contributed, financial incentive is also a major culprit. Private ground that used to be available to any hunter who asked permission is now posted because hunting privileges have been leased to individuals or clubs, providing a new revenue stream to the landowner.

It is ironic that the problem of finding a place to hunt can be especially acute in the Rocky Mountain region. Although public land is abundant in the West, many of the vast expanses tend to have low populations of game animals. In areas where game is concentrated, the number of available permits is usually restricted. There is virtually no place left where one can buy an over-the-counter big game permit, then hunt on uncrowded public land with a high expectation of taking a trophy animal.

At the same time, access to millions of acres of public land is also restricted in various ways. In the past couple decades huge tracts public land have been designated as wilderness areas. Restrictions on motorized vehicles means areas that used to be open to all are now effectively off limits except to sportsmen who have horses or who are physically able to hike in long distances. In Wyoming, nonresidents who want to hunt in wilderness areas are required to hire a state-licensed guide or to hunt with a resident. While this rule seems blatantly discriminatory it has yet to be challenged in court, but there are rumors that a suit could occur soon. Wyoming officials declined to comment on the possibility.

In other cases, access to public land has been blocked by private land. For example, a few years ago a large remote ranch on the Utah/Colorado border was sold to a businessman from Texas. The new owner immediately placed a locked gate across a county road that bisected the ranch and provided the only access to thousands of acres of National Forest land. Although county officials have repeatedly asked that the gate be removed, it remains and the county does not have the financial resources to take the matter to court. In the meantime, dozens of locals that used to hunt the blocked public lands have been forced to go elsewhere.

Wealthy hunters can avoid the problems of overcrowded public land and limited permits. A hunter who wants to kill a trophy elk and is willing to spend $10,000 can choose from private land hunts in several states without having to draw a license and with a virtual guarantee of success.

In many cases, the hunters willing to pay for the privilege of hunting on private land are nonresidents. Hunters displaced are usually residents, now forced to compete with other hunters on public lands. But it would be inaccurate to depict the battle lines as simply resident versus nonresident.

The issue stinks as much of trophy snobbery as it does of geographic discrimination. Lawsuits against states who limit nonresident access on public lands only arise in areas known to produce heavy-antlered animals. For example, in the well-publicized Arizona lawsuit challenging a regulation that limited the number of permits issued to non-residents, court documents state: "The court of course recognizes that the non-resident caps apply to the more desirable or premium hunts." The document noted that in non-premium areas quotas were not necessary, because fewer than 5% of the applications came from nonresidents.

In other words, there is a supply and demand problem exacerbated by competition for big money and big bucks. The supply of good hunting areas is not sufficient to meet the demands of hunters who want to kill a trophy animal.

In many cases, successful game management has made the situation worse.

Consider Utah, for example. A dozen years ago the state's elk herd consisted primarily of cows and immature bulls. In an attempt to produce some trophy bull opportunities, wildlife managers began limiting the number of mature bulls that could be killed in most of the state's units. The program worked well, and now record-book bulls are killed in almost every unit each year.

But as the state's reputation for elk hunting has grown, the number of people wanting to hunt trophy elk also increased. In 1994, the first year after the sate implemented a bonus-point system for limited area elk hunting, 34,274 people applied for 776 permits. Of those, only 1,193 were non-residents, or about 3.5% of the total applicants. In 2005, 58,357 applied for 1,552 total permits, including 5,476 applying for the first time. The number of non-resident applications increased to 12,748, or almost 22% of the total applicants. So while the total number of available permits doubled since the system started, the overall odds of drawing a permit actually declined.

Jim Karpowitz, big game coordinator for Utah, said that demand seems to increase when a state gains notoriety for producing big bulls. While Utah limits nonresident permits to 10 percent, the state has yet to be the target of a lawsuit. But Karpowitz said state officials are keeping a close eye on what happens in other areas.

Utah also has some any-bull areas where permits are sold over the counter to both residents and nonresidents. Trophy bulls are killed in these units every year, but hunting pressure is high and the bigger bulls are scarce. The number of permits is limited, but most recent years permits have been available until the start of the hunt.

Successful game management impacts hunting opportunities on private land as well as on public land. When the biggest bulls were raghorns, landowners struggled to sell the permits they were allotted and many were given away to friends and family. As bulls got bigger, so did the price to hunt them. Landowners can no longer justify allowing friends or acquaintances to hunt for free when they can sell the permits for $5,000 to $12,000 each.

It is difficult to criticize rural landowners for taking advantage of an economic windfall. In Illinois a cap on non-resident deer hunters has drawn opposition from the Illinois Farm Bureau, which argues that the cap limits economic opportunity in rural areas and decreases revenue for local and state governments. In many rural areas farmers and ranchers struggle each year to stay afloat. Extra revenue from leasing hunting rights or from offering guided, private land hunts can be the key to economic survival.

High-dollar prices for hunts do not mean that every outfitter or landowner is getting rich. While there are some outfitters who guide hundreds of hunters in several states each year and employ dozens of guides and wranglers, most guides and outfitters operate on a much smaller scale.

For example, Travis Black of Black Timber Outfitters in Blanding, Utah, said he and his brothers began guiding hunts because they were already spending all their free time in the mountains scouting and filming elk and deer.

Now they get paid to guide 15 to 30 hunters per year. They work their guiding business around full-time regular jobs, using their vacation time in the fall and spending weekends scouting much of the rest of the year. Travis said they make an effort to charge less than other outfitters, plus they try to produce quality video footage of each hunt. After figuring all the costs including expensive video equipment, Travis said they hope to just break even.

The high cost of hunting trophy class animals is not necessarily a new phenomenon. In a 1978 case, Baldwin v. Montana, the U.S. Supreme Court noted, "Elk hunting by nonresidents in Montana is a recreation and a sport. In itself-wholly apart from license fees-it is costly and obviously available only to the wealthy nonresident or to the one so taken with the sport that he sacrifices other values in order to indulge in it and to enjoy what it offers."

Thankfully, the United States has not reached the same level as much of the world, where hunting is an activity reserved exclusively for the wealthy and privileged classes. In fact, perhaps recent court cases over hunting access are a positive sign. The fact that so many people want to pursue new hunting challenges in other states could be an indication that many hunters have reached a level of prosperity that allows them to contemplate such ventures-something many could not do just a few years ago.


jaybe's picture

A Real Shell Game

Man, you are right about that!

So many of the regulations, rules, licenses and limits are designed to get the most of the sportsmen's dollars while gving back the least amount of satisfaction to the sportsmen.

With state and federal wildlife agencies being pressured to justify their jobs and raise a certain amount of revenue, the outcome is all too predictable ...

 ... the game animals will be mismanaged ...

 ... the hunters will be fleeced of their hunting dollars ...

 ... the "operation" will go on as usual with plently of excuses for the dwindling number of hunter days and lower harvest numbers.

On through the fog . . . .