Private-land big-game hunting can be expensive and often out of reach for many hunters. Paying for public access leases was an expensive alternative for the Colorado Division of Wildlife and rarely opened enough acreage to be cost-effective. Also, throwing the doors of private ranches open to public hunters wasn't met with a lot of enthusiasm from private landowners and usually had the unintended effect of chasing animals onto the neighbors.
With the induction of the Ranching for Wildlife program in 1985, many of those problems were solved. The program is open to ranches or groups of ranches with a minimum of 12,000 acres. As a result of the program, more than 1 million acres of private land are now open to resident big-game hunters.
Rather than cash, the program provides landowners with incentives for allowing limited public access. These incentives are in the form of guaranteed licenses and liberal season structures. In exchange, the land is opened to a limited numbers of resident hunters. Non-resident hunters were prohibited from applying for public RFW licenses in 2000, which allows no access fee and guarantees at least 10 days of hunting on the private land with the same degree of access to the property that the private, paying hunters enjoy. Ranches in the program also are required to develop and implement an approved habitat management plan for the ranch.
Does it sound too good to be true? Some people think so. In some parts of the state, particularly the northwest, the program has come under fire. Detractors complain that the DOW gives up too much with few resultant benefits. Complaints of ranches stockpiling elk or changing the normal movement patterns of animals also are common. However, after looking into a number of complaints, I've found few that can be validated. There's no doubt that some ranches in the program harbor a great number of elk. But they did when they were not in the program.
Is the DOW getting its money's worth out of the program? The numbers speak for themselves. Eight hundred seventeen elk hunters, 281 deer hunters and 356 antelope hunters had access to 12 ranches totaling 391,704 acres in Routt and Moffat counties during the 2000 big-game hunting season.
Complaints of hunter crowding are rare and success rates far exceeded those typically seen on public lands. But without a doubt, the greatest benefit of the program is that the lands in the program continue to exist as productive wildlife habitat, a benefit to every resident and visitor.