Do Western Landowners Own the Elk?

Western big game, especially elk, spend much of their time on private ranches, but that DOES NOT mean the landowners own the elk.

Do Western Landowners Own the Elk?

Photo from Wyoming Game and Fish Department Facebook

Throughout much of history, hunting was reserved only for nobility. The game, in effect, belonged to the king, not the people. It was not until just a few generations ago in America that the game belonged to all the people, not just the privileged few. This, in turn, was the catalyst for modern game management practices, financed primarily by sport hunters through voluntary tax programs (the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937) and license and tag fees – with nonresident hunters paying exponentially more than state residents. Sport hunting has been used as the cornerstone of wildlife management. Today, unfortunately, that may be changing, at least out West.

The problem is in many areas, elk herds are growing, and these herds are increasingly spending a large portion of the year on private ranches, where ranchers are complaining that elk are eating too much of the crops they grow for cattle, destroying fences, and causing other property damage. This should come as no surprise. Private ranches occupy prime lowland territory, with ample water and plenty of food. There, elk and other big game find the living much easier than on higher elevation public land tracts, where food is scarcer, hunters abound and people are recreating all year round, and, significantly in a growing number of areas, apex predators such as wolves, grizzly bears and mountain lions run practically unchecked. 

For decades, one way some states have helped ranchers mitigate this damage is to give landowners “landowner tags,” which they can sell or barter at will. This many do, often selling them to outfitters who charge a premium to hunt a big bull or buck behind locked gates. This, of course, does nothing to solve the problem of too many cow elk.

I understand ranchers have problems other than too many elk. Taxes, uncertain cattle and agriculture prices, and pressure to sell the ranch to a developer, are just a few of them. As an unattached, non-ranch-owning, shoestring budget hunter, though, I find myself having a hard time sympathizing with them over the elk issue — especially when, as I did in 2022 with a nonresident Montana general elk tag costing north of $1,000 in my pocket — watch over a hundred elk living just inside the fence of a ranch that didn’t allow hunting, while on the adjacent public land there was nothing to find but wolf tracks in the snow.

Now, there are state programs that offer incentives for ranchers to allow public hunting — think Block Management-type programs — but these alone will not help solve the too many elk issue. Rather than try to find ways to encourage ranchers to open their gates to increasing numbers of unattached hunters who’d love nothing more than to put a fat cow elk in the freezer, one Wyoming state legislator, Rep. Bill Allemand (R-Midwest), floated a proposal last winter to provide ranchers what would essentially be “all-you-can-kill” elk permits. His initial proposal would charge a rancher $20 for a permit, valid August 1-April 1, that would allow them to kill as many elk on their property as they’d like, or give the permit to someone else to do the same thing.

Are you kidding me? When the proposal first appeared — and it may never become reality — hunters reacted angrily on social media and many of the online hunting chat rooms. Their beef is the same one I’ve had for decades — it’s just plain wrong to give preferential treatment to landowners who have, in many ways, helped make the problem worse by not allowing enough public hunting, or charge extremely high trespass fees, or lease all hunting to an outfitter.

Nobody believes in private property rights more than I do, and if a landowner wishes to keep people off their land for whatever reason, I completely understand. But as was decided back in 1940 in a Montana court case, State vs. Rathbone, game causing property damage is no justification for killing them outside legal hunting seasons. In effect, the court said, “A property owner in this state must recognize the fact that there may be some injury to property or inconvenience from wild game for which there is no recourse.” And it’s not like ranchers are never compensated for elk damage. According to WyoFile, in Wyoming in 2022 one rancher was reimbursed $70,000 for the hay elk ate.

As any public land hunter knows, the quality of the experience has gone downhill from what it was just a decade or two ago. Public lands are saturated with hunters educated by information easily available online, yet even so, success rates, especially for bowhunters, rarely exceed 10 percent on public ground. And when hunters hit the woods, elk know they can hop the fence onto private ground and be safe. So that’s where they go.

Perhaps it’s time for some creative thinking. Would ranchers allow hunters on their property for a nominal trespass fee to hunt cow elk if there was a special season that extended through the winter and into early spring? Wouldn’t that be a way to at least partially solve the problem while creating lots of good will with the non-ranching public?

I certainly don’t have a one-size-fits-all answer to what has become a complex problem. What I do ardently believe is all game animals belong to the people, not the landowner. It’s not the king’s game. If you don’t want to allow the people on your property to help mitigate the problem, that’s your choice. But then you have to live with it.


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