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Wildlife management in North America has been based on more than a century of inclusion between the hunting public and landowners. But that has been changing over the past 30 years in Montana.

The so-called North American model of wildlife management began with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1842 that declared that fish and wildlife are owned by the states and their people as a public trust. It also got a big boost from Theodore Roosevelt during his presidency, when he began protecting land and conserving wildlife, said Jim Posewitz, founder of the Helena-based Orion, The Hunter's Institute.

"The North American model was first articulated by two Canadian and one American wildlife biologists - Val Geist and Shawn Mahoney and John Organ. They published a paper in 2001 called 'Why Hunting Has Defined the Model of North American Wildlife Conservation,' " Posewitz said.

"A year later, the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies adopted a white paper approving of the North American model," he continued.

"The model has seven basic principles," Posewitz said. "Wildlife is a public resource. Wildlife was recovered by eliminating the markets for wildlife. Wildlife can only be allocated by law. Wildlife can only be killed for a legitimate purpose. Wildlife is considered an international resource. Science is the proper tool for the discharge of wildlife policy. And the crown jewel of the seven is the democracy of hunting. Nobody gets privilege. We're all equal. We all conserve, and we all share."

Posewitz said the North American model and the Supreme Court's ruling that wildlife is a public trust are not viewed the same by all people in all places.

"It spins differently all across the country," he said. "The states have defended the integrity of the public trust of wildlife to varying degrees. Some did pretty good. Some have done poorly."

The worst may be Texas, Posewitz said, which has "has indulged property owners with virtually all the privilege they want."

"In Montana, probably the biggest sin is that we've started to accommodate the commerce of hunting - the outfitter set-aside and the privileged access to hunting for commercial purposes," he said. "It's probably not against the law, but it violates the public trust responsibility that has been such a valuable tool in wildlife restoration.

"It's a growing problem here. It's the assumption that commercial users make that their clients are so incompetent that they can't hunt with the people in common. It comes with public exclusion, and it does not accept the basic principle that we need to share it in common," Posewitz said.

"Their clients have to have this privilege. This privilege is based on the fact that their clients and the commercial interests have no appreciation for what it took to stop the slaughter and restore the game. It was done by all the people. It was based on this common use of the resource. With this, we repopulated the entire continent with wildlife."

Over time, the North American model was a process of working together to restore the land and restore the wildlife that lived on it. It was done by all groups working together.

"We have a cultural commitment to agriculture," Posewitz said. "We're perfectly happy to subsidize agriculture, and we should. Nobody squawks about that. That's a given. But the farmers and ranchers of today really haven't been exposed to exactly what this public trust is all about and how it affects wildlife."

Posewitz reached back 70-plus years to illustrate his point.

"During the Dust Bowl, for example, everyone came to the farmers' aid," he said. "It was done without question. Funding was made available and federal and state agencies were formed to restore the land and with that restoration, the wildlife started to come back. Public hunters and landowners worked together to transplant herds and restore populations. Now, they don't remember when there was no wildlife. That generation has now passed.

"Wildlife has been in the marketplace before, and we damn near wiped out the entire continent," Posewitz said.

Neil Martin, a retired wildlife manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, watched this change to commercial use of wildlife and the exclusion of the public hunter become more pronounced during his career. He worked for the agency from 1965 to 1998, with the final 28 years in Miles City.

"It all started in Eastern Montana over two-deer seasons in the mid- to late 1970s. A lot of the wildlife managers in the other regions cut back. We didn't do that. We remained with two-deer, either-sex, either-species seasons," Martin said.

"We had no idea that people would take advantage of this as they did, and they really piled in here and that included the nonresidents," he said. "It wasn't so much outfitting at the start - we didn't have that many outfitters in Eastern Montana then - it was that that some landowners could take advantage of those numbers of people, and they could charge fees to hunt. There was some leasing, but that was by nonresidents. Then outfitting caught on. They were guaranteed a license and lots of clients.

"Nonresidents were only supposed to get 10 percent of the special licenses like antelope. There was a time they were getting almost 40 percent of them," Martin said. "That was all associated with paid hunting, whether it was outfitting or the landowner was getting it.

"By sometime in the '80s, access became a real issue, and it has continued. We had a great abundance of animals. We had a huge harvestable supply. But they were just unavailable to the general public.

"When you get big chunks of land like this closed, it takes some pretty drastic measures to get that changed," Martin said. "People have to look at it as bigger than just affecting me and just where I hunt. Access to hunt and manage wildlife owned by the people is all the people's problem."

Gazette outdoor editor Mark Henckel can be contacted at 633-2598 or at henckel@billingsgazette.com.

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