OUT: Sunday Column May 10, 2009

Hunting ban petition lawyers are barking up the wrong tree

If you look in the dictionary under thin ice, you’ll see a picture of the Colorado Wildlife Commission.

That is what you’d see, anyway, if the accompanying listing was “Citizen Petitions to Ban Hunting.”

The Wildlife Commission listened Thursday to two such petitions from Front Range groups. Aside from some not-so-veiled threats of future lawsuits from a fancy-pants, big-city lawyer, there was enough heard that longtime commission watchers could only hope the commission would do the right thing.

Problem is, no one seems quite sure what the right thing is.

Both petitions came from homeowners groups, one on Sugar Loaf Mountain west of Boulder and the other from Castle Pines Village south of Denver.

Representatives from both groups expressed similar distress: Hunting activity is threatening their safety.

Both wanted similar results: A prohibition on hunting in those areas by the Wildlife Commission.

Both, too, displayed equal ignorance of the DOW’s role in wildlife management and working within the confines of different jurisdictions, particularly in the case of Sugar Loaf Mountain, where a scattered subdivision has developed on what seems to be former mining claims. Homeowners are unhappy that the Forest Service and the DOW allow hunting in the area in spite of a 30-year-old Boulder County ban on firearm discharge.

If the DOW were to ban hunting in the area, said attorney Susan Horner, “It would go a long way in saving us a whole lot of legal fees.”

Simple as that: Ban hunting, we won’t sue.

But where does the DOW authority start and stop in this mix of private and federal land governed by county rules?

Does the state agency have the authority to tell county commissioners or Forest Service officials what to do?

And in the case of Castle Pines, where homeowners are complaining about hunting on a neighboring ranch that precedes Castle Pines by a half-century or so, should the DOW dare to intervene on private land?

The agency manages wildlife, not land-use practices. There are plenty of legislators licking their collective chops at the thought of any government agency daring to impose undue regulations on private land.

And Horner managed to confuse the issue even more by stating she wanted to prove the “setting of hunting seasons is a legislative, not a regulatory action.”

Great. Get the yahoos in the state Legislature involved in yet another topic they know nothing about and see what happens to your elk season.

County commissioners and city officials are charged with dealing with public safety issues, the main topic of both petitions.

Watching someone load a deer in a pickup or unexpectedly stumbling upon what Horner repeatedly called a “gut bag” in the woods isn’t about public safety. It might be distasteful to some, but at least it reinforces the fact not all meat comes in a plastic wrapper at the supermarket.

On the surface, these are two more cases of people moving into an area and trying to change the land use to suit their wants.

As Wildlife Commissioner Dorothea Farris made clear, the “responsibility for this should lie with whoever allowed these developments to happen.”

As a former Pitkin County commissioner, Farris is very familiar with the conflicts that arise when people start encroaching in wildlife habitat.

Bears, elk, deer, prairie dogs to mountain lions, the list goes on and on.

And what if the Wildlife Commission decides to get involved in the Sugar Loaf Mountain or Castle Pines fray?

In 30 seconds, name as many places as you can where similar conflicts are possible.
Eagle Valley, Carbondale, Aspen, Durango, Steamboat Springs, Sterling, Craig, Grand Junction. Time’s not up and already the list is too long to contemplate.

“This is a big can of worms,” cautioned Craig outfitter Tom Mikesell in a quick aside.

“We’ve seen this coming for a long time. This thing can spread all over the state, and the DOW has to be really careful.”

Commission Chairman Brad Coors, to his credit, gave direction to involve city and county officials.

“It’s important they have the opportunity to comment,” said Coors, implying that he very well understands the potential for jurisdictional conflicts.

The arguments will continue at the commission’s June meeting in Trinidad with a final decision expected for July.

The search for the “right thing” continues.

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