Last hunting season, a story ran in the Cowboy State Daily of a bull elk wasting away on private land because the landowner would not let the hunter who shot this elk onto his land to harvest. Not trusting the hunter, the private landowner refused entry – as was his right – and the hunter was told to “save his tag” for another bull.
Like many who read the story, I was both heartbroken and outraged. This elk died, gone to waste, for seemingly no reason.
But there is a reason: increasing conflict and distrust between landowners and hunters, the result of a changing landscape for both, and accusations on both sides of bad actors and violated rights.
Conflict between hunters and landowners is not going to decrease unless we have the hard conversations we’ve been afraid to have for far too long and come to solutions that work for all of us.
We have to face the current realities of land and hunting in the west. New subdivisions and changing values among new landowners are butting up directly against Wyoming’s outdoor traditions and increasing hunting pressure and the demand for full, unimpeded access to public land in states like ours.
If we don’t act now, conflict will only intensify, with landowners retreating behind no-trespass laws and hunters more and more outraged at crowded trailheads and illegal attempts to block us from public land.
We have to talk about landlocked public land: can public land truly be called “public” if it is inaccessible other than to a select few? We have 1.1 million inaccessible public acres within our Wyoming borders, and 2.4 million more in confusing, disputed checkerboard-type patterns, among which only some, like in Sweetwater County, have unimpeded access.
We have to talk about technology, property boundaries, and historic access easements. Wyoming law puts the burden on the hunter to know when we are on public or private land, and the technology at our fingertips is better than ever.
But we hear frequently from landowners that the boundary lines on that technology are wrong, making planning difficult even for hunters with the best of intentions. And, with the shift from paper to smartphone, we’ve lost track of some of the historic access points and easements that could open up our public lands.
And, yes, we have to talk about what is and isn’t working with the Access Yes program, piloted in the late 1990s to deserved acclaim. But acres opened through the program peaked in 2012.
While the access this program provides is welcome and appreciated by hunters and anglers, there are serious issues with enforcement, staffing, and decreasing access over time. Access Yes is an essential tool for increasing public access, but it is only one tool we should be utilizing in Wyoming.
I find some folks are afraid to have these conversations out of a (perhaps not misplaced) fear that really digging in on these issues will result in someone winning, and someone else losing.
Just look at the dialogue surrounding corner crossing: people believe we either win or lose everything if we “win” or “lose” on corner crossing. Landowners wring their hands about losing all rights to their private property if hunters can corner cross; hunters fear we will lose all rights to public land if we can’t.
This zero-sum thinking is going to have to end if we’re going to actually have the long overdue and necessary conversations to solve these problems.
Understanding where, among those 3.5 million landlocked and checkerboarded acres, we truly have access and where we don’t will help inform ramped-up efforts to open those public lands that should be accessible as our western heritage.
A Wyoming-style MAPLands Act could be a good way to start answering questions about property boundaries and what is or isn’t accessible in Wyoming, and put to rest the notion that property boundaries are disputable.
We have to talk about corner crossing, openly and honestly. Certainly, we should be prepared for what might come out of litigation. But ideally, we should be prepared with what we Wyoming residents want as a solution, rather than depending on the courts to solve these access issues for us.
At the end of the day, the only true “losers” of zero-sum thinking on these issues are the wildlife; it is a bull elk, dying a needlessly painful and slow death, resulting in unnecessary wanton waste for which we should all be ashamed.
It is the wildlife that loses when we the people cannot come together to solve difficult and contentious issues. These questions aren’t going to go away. It’s time for all of us to sit down and figure it out.
Sabrina King is the lobbyist for the Wyoming Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers