MT Hunt club under scrutiny for locking-up private land for

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Effort to fight fee hunting under fire

3/18/02

Associated Press

BOZEMAN (AP) - The organization that Bob Waller formed to save his favorite hunting spots from being locked up by exclusive hunting leases has locked up 100,000 acres of farm and ranch land for exclusive use of its members.

He hopes to have 500,000 acres under lease within a couple of years.

Waller, of Bozeman, formed HuntMontana out of frustration over outfitters' leasing prime hunting land for their exclusive use. He's braced for the argument that his approach to a solution may be adding to the problem.

"So far we've been overly cautious about letting this roll, worrying about how well it's going to be received," Waller said.

He started the company about three years ago, but except for a Web site, huntmontana.com, he hasn't pursued publicity until recently.

Waller said HuntMontana isn't signing up land from anyone who already allows public hunting.

"We're focusing on opening lands that are closed and have been closed," Waller said. "Either an outfitter had it tied up, or three guys from Texas had it leased. We're not taking anything you already had access to."

Alan Charles, statewide coordinator of landowner/sportsmen relations for Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said HuntMontana is "another niche in the access game."

"But I think it works contrary to the basic concept of public wildlife being available to people willing to buy a license," Charles said. "I think the department sees this as simply another way for people to commercially capitalize on wildlife."

FWP's Block Management program pays landowners to allow public hunting, not members-only hunting, Charles pointed out. For hunters, land posted off-limits by HuntMontana will look no different from other lost hunting opportunities, he said.

The tradition of free hunting access may be on the road to extinction in any event, said Don Leal, an economist with the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman.

Most hunters dream of finding great private-land hunting without paying for it.

"Speaking as a hunter, I like to do that, too," Leal said. "Speaking as an economist, I'm not sure how much longer we can make that work."

Fee hunting has been around a long time in Montana, particularly in the eastern part of the state. And increasingly hunters demand not just access but "quality hunting - trophy elk and deer, abundant birds," Leal said.

More hunters are willing to pay for that, and landowners are reaping bigger rewards. It's the most basic of economic equations: supply and demand.

Hunting clubs that lease big chunks of land have been common in the East and Southeast for many years, but are rare in the Northern Rockies.

If HuntMontana is successful in marketing its concept to Montana residents, it's a signal that fee hunting is becoming mainstream here, too, Leal said.

So far all HuntMontana members are also Montana residents, according to Waller.

For landowners, HuntMontana offers extra income and the promise of easing friction with hunters. The club screens applicants for criminal and game violations, requires members to make reservations to hunt, and makes its hunting lands walk-in only.

Hunters can choose from thousands of acres of hunting land and get exclusive access to their spot. HuntMontana provides maps and data on harvest numbers from previous years.

The company is focusing on upland bird, waterfowl and deer hunting properties, and has several spots for varmints, turkeys, antelope and other game. Most of its leases are in Eastern Montana.

Memberships cost about $950 each.

Waller said he's not soliciting any land in Block Management, and in fact has declined some offers. But, he said, he will go after the land if an owner indicates that he might switch from Block Management to a lease by an outfitter.
 

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