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The Montana Wildlife Federation is waging a war of words with outdoor gear retail giant Cabela's over its Cabela's Trophy Properties recreational real estate listing business and how it may affect hunter access in Montana.

It began with a letter to Cabela's president and CEO Dennis Highby from MWF executive director Craig Sharpe on May 30. It continued with a letter back from Trophy Properties' manager David Nelson a few days later. And it resumed last Tuesday with another letter from Sharpe to Highby.

What sparked the controversy was Cabela's involvement in selling key pieces of wildlife habitat, including the 29,000-acre Weaver Ranch, north of Winnett, which had been enrolled in the state's Block Management Program. Through the Block Management Program, farmers and ranchers are paid by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to provide free public access to resident and nonresident hunters.

MWF notes that with sales of recreational property, public access for hunting and fishing is typically lost to Montana sportsmen. And, frankly, the MWF wonders why Cabela's wants to be a part of that.

Sharpe's May 30 letter began, "The first words on the website of Cabela's Trophy Properties, under the question: What is Cabela's Trophy Properties? reads, 'For over 46 years, sportsmen have trusted Cabela's.' Regrettably, we now come to the conclusion that we sportsmen of Montana can trust Cabela's no longer."

The letter continues, "The MWF Executive Board finds that Cabela's is trading on its trusted reputation as a merchant of sporting goods to engage in a real estate marketing activity that is calculated to subvert and destroy the very system of North American wildlife conservation that has provided Cabela's with the hunter-and-angler markets that gave your company life in the first place."

It goes on, "Many MWF members have come to live in Montana precisely to escape the results in other states of such 'recreational land marketing' that squeezes out hunters and anglers of ordinary means from access to publicly owned wildlife that is located on private lands."

Cabela's responded with a letter from Nelson which stated that Trophy Properties was simply a listing service. It sells no land and puts no restrictions on what's done with properties.

Nelson wrote, "Cabela's Trophy Properties is a recreational property listing service. Similar to a MLS for residential properties, we have a marketing relationship with independent recreational real estate brokers who are members of our listing service.

Nelson's letter continued, "All of the properties marketed by Cabela's Trophy Properties are already for sale to the public. All listings are available for purchase by any entity, public or private. All listings are promoted to the general public on www.CabelasTrophyProperties.com. We do not get involved in the sale or purchase of any property. Cabela's does not own any non-commercial land. Cabela's Trophy Properties does not have, nor will we be opening, any offices in any states."

Cabela's gets its listings from brokers and agents in the state, including Western Skies Land Co. in Lewistown, which bought the Weaver Ranch to subdivide.

Sharpe commented that this doesn't mean that Cabela's isn't profiting from these land dealings. Certainly, using the Cabela's name to sell recreational land puts the firm's blessings on Trophy Properties' dealings.

Cabela's Trophy Properties currently has 72 listings for recreational land in Montana with price tags of up to $6 million. And some of the sales verbiage on these properties being sold is enough to raise some eyebrows:

• "Last large bighorn sheep range in Montana."

• "Waterfowl sanctuary entwined along 1.5 miles of the Yellowstone River with three private islands."

• "Large Montana ranch containing approximately 16,900 acres (7,195 acres deeded)" or "Access to over 375,00 acres of BLM" or "3,200 acres against the USFS (U.S. Forest Service land)."

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• "Excellent CRP coverage and payment make this the perfect investment hunting property" or "480 acres, 345.7 in CRP."

• "In fact, Pheasants Forever used to raise birds on this parcel."

In his letter to Cabela's last week, Sharpe wrote, "You cannot expect to escape the glare of public scrutiny or a reaction by Montana sportsmen that believe Cabela's is complicit to large blocks of highly prized wildlife and hunting and fishing habitats being sold to interests that may either break up the properties because they view the attractive wildlife-rich lands as 'Trophy' real estate or to exclusive wildlife privatization and hunting commercialization ventures."

Sharpe continued, "Some of our members have noticed the 'For Sale' notices for traditional public hunting, private properties on the Cabela's website, and in local ag-news publications, and are now calling for a strong public hunter response in Montana, such as burning or mailing back their Cabela's catalog."

MWF asked in its recent letter to meet with Cabela's officials in regard to its real estate activities. "MWF would like to discuss the circumstances with Cabela's in this regard and offer some meaningful options that take into consideration the values of conservation-minded Montana sportsmen," Sharpe wrote, adding, "We recognize that previous experience in marketing real estate as hunting properties may have left you uninformed of how strongly this practice is opposed by hunters and anglers in Montana."

As of Friday, Cabela's hadn't replied.

Mark Henckel is the outdoor editor of The Billings Gazette. His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be contacted at 633-2598 or at henckel@billingsgazette.com.

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