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Do land access fees hurt wildlife?

 

Bedded bull elk
Photo credit: Getty Images

Wildlife experts maintain that the growing trend of land access fees will not only hurt hunters, but wildlife as well.

For some hunters, paying an additional fee for access to prime hunting locations is nothing new. Land access fees have been around for a while in the form of waterfowl-hunting clubs, and more recently, the more desirable upland bird regions have been adopting pay-to-hunt programs.

For others, however, having to pay land access fees is more of a culture shock. Big-game hunting across the western states has largely escaped the trend. National forests, state forests, Bureau of Land Management and state wildlife agency run lands provided a large region that was typically supplemented by large holdings of private timber companies.

The industrial forest landowners, in turn, allowed public hunting as a way to manage wildlife. Hunting proved to be an important means of decreasing deer and elk damage to young trees.

Last spring, the Weyerhaeuser Company in southwest Washington initiated a program in which individuals were required to purchase a $150 permit to venture onto Weyerhaeuser property, even by foot. The fee went into effect on Aug. 1.

From that point forward, hunters no longer had free access to Weyerhaeuser’s 325,000 acres of land.

“There’s a sense that this is a knife in the back from many in the hunting and fishing community,” said Rep. Brian Blake, (D-Aberdeen).

While the new fees may not have significantly impact local hunters, many cited that those from outside the area would be deterred by the fees. This, in turn, would result in a serious decrease in tourism spending, which would hurt the local economy.

Yet the implications of land access fees go even beyond effecting the hunters themselves.

Eric Holman, district wildlife biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, says that the concept behind land access fees is fundamentally flawed.

“This change attacks the very premise of wildlife management in North America — that the wildlife belongs to everybody,’’ Holman contends.

He also maintains that it could potentially disrupt the current wildlife management system, which has proven to work extremely well.

North America’s unique wildlife management system is based upon license fees, taxes and donations.

Hunters pay a fee to obtain a license for a particular hunt and a particular species. These fees provide the vast majority of funding for most state wildlife agencies. The agencies, in turn, are able to use these revenues for restoration, conservation and preservation efforts.

Hunters are also taxed through the Pittman-Robertson program, a federal excise tax on firearms and handguns, ammunition and accessories, as well as archery equipment. The Pittman-Robertson tax has been in place since 1937.

The money goes directly to the Secretary of the Interior, who in turn distributes it to the states based on a formula that weights the area of a state and the number of licensed hunters. Not one cent of the money can be used by anyone other than the state’s fish and wildlife agency.

Wildlife management also benefits from donations from conservation groups. Ducks Unlimited, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Safari Club International, Wild Turkey Federation, the Mule Deer Foundation and the Foundation for North America Wild Sheep are just some of the organizations that have helped fund and initiate wildlife management efforts.

In the end, it is a system that works.

"Hunted wildlife species such as waterfowl, elk, pronghorn, white-tailed deer and wild sheep have rebounded from historic population low-points around 1900 under this system,'' Holman maintains.

"Wildlife that are generally not hunted have benefited from this as well due to the establishment and maintenance of habitats that support much more than game species and from the development of the science and tools used to manage all wildlife.

"This occurred because a large social-political entity (hunters) valued, funded and advocated for the animals and because large amounts of habitat on a combination of public and private lands was available for the wildlife and those who hunted them.''

While it may take some time to understand what the exact impact of the trend towards privatization will be, Holman is not optimistic.

"Privatization, even when veiled in the form of access limitations, erodes this relationship and therefore the social and economic support for wildlife,'' Holman contends.

"This is true whether it’s on a private game reserve in Europe, a fenced white-tailed deer ranch in Texas or and industrial tree farm with severe access restrictions.''

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