Budget crunch taking away land-access program for hunters

The Big Game Access Program was a boon to pronghorn hunters looking for a place to hunt and at one time had more than 130,000 acres of private land leased. The Parks and Wildlife commission has stated its intent to cut the program because of budget shortfalls.

When the news broke a few years ago that the then-Colorado Division of Wildlife was short some $10 million, sportsmen across the state prepared themselves for some belt-tightening.

Now, those fears are manifesting themselves.

One of the programs being cut in the name of saving money is the Big Game Access Program, a pilot program began in 2007 wherein Colorado Parks and Wildlife paid landowners in southeast Colorado to open their private land to public deer and pronghorn hunters.

At one time, more than 130,000 acres were leased at prices ranging from 25 cents per acre to $3 for prime, riverbottom mule deer property.

There are many good reasons for the state to consider a program of leasing big-game hunting property and why the Parks and Wildlife commission should re-consider it’s stated intent to cut the program.

The top reason, at least from this vantage point, is the recruitment and retention of hunters by offering them a place to hunt.

This may seem a non-argument on the public land-rich Western Slope, but in southeast Colorado most land is private.

It’s nearly impossible to access private land because many landowners would rather lease their land to outfitters or well-heeled individuals than deal with a stranger asking permission.

Land-leasing programs already have proven successful in Colorado and elsewhere. The state’s Walk-In Access Program for turkey, waterfowl and small game hunting in eastern Colorado has drawn accolades along with return visits from hunters, many of whom said they wouldn’t be hunting if it weren’t for the promise of having a place to go.

“You just can’t get access,” bemoaned Steve Hilde of Loveland, one of the early backers of the BGAP (say it “big gap”) back in 2006. “All the good bottomland is owned by the duck clubs and they want $85,000 to join their club.

“With the BGAP, youths 18 and below get to hunt for free.”

Adults paid a $40 permit fee each year for unlimited access to program lands.

Although the test program wasn’t meant to break even, in recent years the fees made a sizeable dent in $100,000 the state spent every year on land leases.

In 2012, nearly 1,750 BGAP permits were sold and raised nearly $70,000.

“We started at 6 percent funding and we were in the 60s this year,” said Dan Prenzlow, Southeast Region Manager for Parks and Wildlife.

As a pilot program, the BGAP survived more than twice as long as designed.

“It was meant as a three-year pilot and we ran it couple of extra years to gather more information and then the merger happened, so we’re 7 years into it,” Prenzlow said.

What the agency learned was that hunters on BGAP land hunted more often and for twice as many days, as they did on non-BGAP lands.

“This is probably guys who didn’t have a place to go before,” said Hilde, who also is encouraging the commission to re-think its stand on the BGAP.

“I’ve never seen a CPW program that shows growth like that. This decision makes no sense, whatsoever.”

Land-lease programs in Montana and Wyoming offer hunting access but those states don’t pay game damage to landowners as does Colorado nor does either state come close to Colorado’s 5.2-million population.

Prenzlow, who said he favors a big-game, land-leasing program, said he views the commission budget discussion as a starting point, not the end of the BGAP.

“I don’t see it as a failing but more as the start of the discussion, and that was the goal of the pilot program,” he said. “I think it’s a great program and that there is interest but it’s not the best timing when you’re cutting $10 million dollars.”

He suggested that should the commission decide to at least consider something similar to the BGAP pilot, there might be federal grants or funds available.

“If we want to grow and retain hunters it’s nice to have some spots that have moderate terrain and are easily accessible,” Hilde said.

“If leasing is the game, I’d sure love to have the state in the game on my behalf.”


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