Recently, there has been a great deal of rhetoric in support of privatizing and commercializing public wildlife - in newspaper columns and even in a book instructing readers on how to increase wildlife on their property and also how to develop trophy horns and antlers on their animals. Some legislators are also claiming an injustice because public wildlife animals eat thousands of tons of forage that should be used by their livestock. With a large number of draft legislative bills dealing with wildlife management this session, I would be surprised if at least one isn't proposing a program such as Ranching For Wildlife for Montana. Such a program would allow landowners to sell tags and or licenses directly to "clients."
I believe these folks need to have a history lesson. Let's start with the U.S. Supreme Court in 1842, when justices addressed the idea of the King's Deer: "The people are the sovereigns. What once belonged to the King now belongs to the people." The same court followed in 1896 with a more precise decision, "Control of wildlife is to be exercised as a trust for the benefit of all people, and not for the government, as distinct from the people, or for the benefit of private individuals as distinguished from the public."
Thus, the Supreme Court made it abundantly clear that wildlife is to be connected to the people and not to the land (as it is in most of Europe).
As for forage consumed by wildlife, the Montana Supreme Court addressed this issue in two cases. In both Sacksmen and Rathbone, the court stated: "Wild game existed here long before the of coming of man. One who acquires property in Montana does so with the notice and knowledge of the presence of wild game. Accordingly, a property owner in this state must recognize there may be some injury to property from wild game for which there is no recourse."
Beyond the court decision that wild game on the land is a condition of acquisition (much the same as recognizing the fact that the wind will blow and rivers will periodically flood), private livestock eats forage on several million acres of public land that could be available for public wildlife, while the token charge of $1.40 per animal unit month for public land grazing amounts to nothing more than a subsidy.
Landowners, many of you honor and respect the fact that wildlife is held in trust for the public, and we appreciate that. We also do not dispute the fact that you have complete control of who may hunt on your land. To others who would ignore history and the courts, please remember, you don't own wildlife, and you can't sell it or the legal authority to harvest it. The citizens of Montana have hired the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and no one else, to manage our wildlife.
John Gibson of Billings is president of the Public Land and Water Access Association.