Positive benefits: GOCO, game-cash dollars helping preserve habitats

More of your license dollars are going into the pockets of private landowners, only this time license buyers actually receive some benefit.

The Colorado Wildlife Commission this week approved the Division of Wildlife spending GOCO and game-cash dollars on three conservation easements to preserve wildlife habitat.

The easements, one each in Yuma, Kit Carson and Routt counties, will set aside close to 10,000 acres of wildlife and riparian habitat and important migration corridors.

However, only the two Front Range easements, totalling 5,700 acres, will allow hunters access to deer, quail and turkey.

A 4,200-acre Routt County easement, while protecting habitat for big-game and upland birds, continues the Division’s trend of spending sportsmen’s dollars to entice ranchers to keep ranching.

There is no question that wildlife habitat faces a slew of threats, especially in areas such as around Steamboat Springs where people increasingly want to live and recreate.

And according to a Division spokesman, this parcel, called the 20-mile Sheep SHA (which apparently stands for Sensitive Habitat Area) is important elk winter range and summer range for deer and pronghorn.

You can’t foster elk herds in a subdivision of mini-ranches, and landscape-oriented wildlife such as sage grouse and elk need the wide-open spaces that similarly attract humans looking for an escape from the city.

And yes, if a rancher wants to develop his land, it’s his right and in many cases his only chance at retirement.

But that also makes us think that if a rancher truly wants to see his land stay undeveloped, he might settle with selling that land to the Division of Wildlife instead of bartering a retirement kitty while still holding on to his property.

In the past decade or so, the Division has actively pursued conservation easements instead of outright fee title purchases, largely because a handful of Republican legislators blew a gasket over the agency’s desire to increase its land holdings.

Such a purchase would mean more opportunities for sportsmen on state-owned lands without the trespass fees and other costs incurred when trying to access private lands.

But the very thought of a government agency increasing its land holdings at the possible loss of a revenue stream to some private individual (read: campaign donor) rankled legislators controlling the budget so they put a hold on the Division’s ability to purchase land.

Although heavy-handed, it wasn’t totally without cause since a few purchases were consummated without the Division entirely having the funds to maintain the properties once they were purchased.

But all too often it was more the Republicans’ desire to whipsaw an agency they saw as a threat to their constituents’ ability to make a buck off the state’s wildlife.

So the Divison has preserved habitat by paying ranchers to continue to do what they do, which is ranch, and not sell to the first land developer slinking past the gate.

It’s the old cows vs. condos threat, one that’s been repeated (and quite successfully) across the West ever since people realized the West as pictured by movie director John Ford was no more.

That the public, who contributes to the payoff through purchasing licenses or lottery tickets, sees no benefit while the landowners continue to run cattle or sheep or maybe nothing and still charge deep-pocketed sports to hunt on their land, seems no matter to those dipping into the purse.

The two Eastern Plains easements are somewhat affordable. The perpetual access easement on the 4,850-acre Shallow River Ranch, bisected by the South Fork of the Republican River and straddling the Yuma-Kit Carson County line, will cost sportsmen $988,000 and the 920-acre Gelvin Ranch in far eastern Yuma County is a real bargain at only $230,000.

The conservation easement for this parcel (another $48,000) will be held by the Nature Conservancy.

But some landowner near Hayden hit the jackpot. The Division is spending $4.92 million of GOCO monies to set aside development and protect habitat.

If you’re ever in the neighborhood, drive by and look at what your lottery dollars have purchased.

But don’t stop, it’s still private.


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