‘Public trust’ largely a mythThe equivalent of the Hippocratic oath among wildlife biologists and managers is the notion of the Public Trust Doctrine of the North American Model of wildlife management, that is wildlife being held in a “public trust” to be managed for the benefit of the public. Notice that I said “notion,” because that is largely what it has become. In many cases, it is an enormous stretch to claim that the public owns North American wildlife, and in those instances the public trust idea is largely a myth.
By: Bernie Kuntz, Outdoors, The Jamestown Sun
The equivalent of the Hippocratic oath among wildlife biologists and managers is the notion of the Public Trust Doctrine of the North American Model of wildlife management, that is wildlife being held in a “public trust” to be managed for the benefit of the public. Notice that I said “notion,” because that is largely what it has become. In many cases, it is an enormous stretch to claim that the public owns North American wildlife, and in those instances the public trust idea is largely a myth.
For example, in western Montana rock musician Huey Lewis and several of his wealthy Stevensville-area neighbors have been battling for several years to ban duck hunting on Mitchell Slough, a 15-mile-long tributary of the Bitterroot River. The Montana Supreme Court has ruled that Mitchell Slough is a public waterway, thus subjecting it to the state’s public access law, which allows hunters access as long as they stay below the high water mark.
That didn’t stop Lewis and his neighbors, however. They recently devised a scheme that beats the court ruling — they started baiting ducks, making it illegal under federal law for anyone to hunt them in the general area where they are baited!
In a recent Associated Press story one landowner bragged: “There’s not a landowner along the Mitchell that will allow any duck hunter to retrieve a duck on his property.” A couple of the landowners listed in the news article are Charles Schwab, founder of the investment firm, and Ken Siebel, managing director of Private Wealth Partners, which provides financial planning services to wealthy clientele.
It sort of reminds one of The Old Country, not? Where the nobility owned the wildlife, the hunting rights, and the “unwashed” peasants were forbidden to hunt.
Disciples of the vaunted North American Model need to recognize that money, politics and private property rights trump any notion of a public trust doctrine.
It happens all the time — landowners outright denying access for hunting or fishing, and often leasing out hunting and fishing rights to private groups or outfitters.
I just hunted on such a property last week in the Gallatin Valley near Bozeman. The place is a wildlife haven, high-end headquarters buildings on several sections of ground, and owned by a wealthy fellow from California. I met the ranch manager a few years ago through a friend. He allows me to shoot gophers on the place, and this year invited me out to shoot an antlerless whitetail, which I did. Whitetail bucks were abundant but strictly off limits. Pheasants by the hundreds scurried everywhere. When I saw the manager, I said, “I am drooling over the pheasants.”
His reply: “Keep on drooling.”
On our way out of the property, Laurie and I saw two flocks of mallards that almost defied description — it was like viewing a swarm of gnats at sundown … there must have been a couple thousand ducks in each flock! Oh yes, I should mention that the waterfowl hunting rights on the place have been leased by a group of well-heeled hunters.
And so this is what has transpired during the last few decades with hunting access — hunters restricted to shooting only cow elk, or totally banned from private property … the bulls being available to friends, family and/or paying hunters. Landowners tell you when and if you may hunt, the species you can pursue, the sex of the species you may take, the date you are welcome, or they may simply tell you to get lost.
State and provincial governments have been caught up in the exclusivity too. Half the big game species found in Alaska cannot be hunted by a U.S. citizen (unless that person is an Alaska resident) without first hiring an outfitter. In the western Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, a non-resident hunter cannot even pursue a deer without first hiring an outfitter. (This is why it costs $4,000 and upward for a deer hunt, and $30,000 or more to hunt Stone sheep!)
Somewhere in all of this is the sacred Public Trust Doctrine if you can find it. It looks to me more like it has become a case of “The King’s Deer.”