The Salt Lake Tribune ran a story last week largely praising Utah’s Cooperative Wildlife Management Unit (CWMU) program. Run since the mid-1990s, the program allows landowners to obtain and sell hunting permits in exchange for opening their land to public hunters.
CWMUs are run much like traditional wildlife management units, with state biologists determining the number of tags that will be issued for each unit, and public hunters using accumulated bonus points to apply for and draw tags to hunt a specific CWMU.
In exchange for that public access, landowners are allotted hunting permits for mule deer, Rocky Mountain elk, moose and antelope, which they can then use on their own or sell to other hunters, sometimes for as much as $15,000 per tag.
The revenue generated from the sale of hunting tags has made landowners more cognizant of managing their properties for wildlife. It’s also kept them afloat when they could no longer support themselves via farming and livestock alone. Profits from hunting have allowed families to keep their ranches, which in turn has preserved open space. And countless residents make their livings on CWMUs as property managers, guides, meat packers, and camp cooks.
All of this is good for wildlife, not to mention the state’s economy.
But while the CWMU program has opened more than 2 million acres of private land to the public that likely would not have been made available otherwise, there are drawbacks to the program.
Some people have been critical of allowing private individuals to profit from the sale of hunting tags. Their argument is grounded in the concept that wildlife, as a public resource, is owned by all citizens of Utah.
There have also been concerns about landowners treating public hunters as second-class citizens compared to their paying customers, and in some cases those concerns have been justified. But, per CWMU rules, public hunters who draw tags must be given the same access to a unit as those hunters who bought their tag from the landowner. There’s even a complaint process for public hunters who feel they’ve been snubbed by landowners in favor of their paying clients.
Others have noted that public lands have been added to some CWMUs, meaning that the average hunter can no longer hunt that land without paying exorbitant fees or drawing a CWMU tag, while landowners in those CWMUs have profited. The success rate for drawing an elk tag for the state’s largest CWMU, the 215,477-acre Deseret Land and Livestock Ranch, is 1 in 75, for example. By law, only a minimum of 10 percent of CWMU tags must be reserved for resident hunters.
And what about those hunters who would have been given permission to hunt private property before the CWMU program came into existence and are left out in the cold now that hunting on private land has become big business? Why would a private landowner let you come and hunt for free, as he may have before, if he can sell a tag to a paying customer for thousands of dollars?
As a commenter to the Salk Lake Tribune article noted, “CWMUs may be a good thing for the land owners however the deck is stacked against the average sportsman. … Our family has traditionally hunted in [northern Utah]. 60% of our public lands that we’ve hunted have been ‘added’ to a CWMU. To hunt those areas that are still public I would need to pay the CWMU manager $10,000 per permit. My family would too. For this year that would be $180,000 just to hunt the areas we did 7 years ago. Keeping in mind the areas are still public land.”
When it comes to the average hunter who doesn’t have loads of money to spend on a hunt, or like the hunter above who has been locked out of public land that is now part of a CWMU and doesn’t want to wait years to draw a tag, the program does appear to have its drawbacks.
Perhaps a better option for Utah hunters looking for a place to hunt are the 60,000 acres enrolled in the state’s walk-in access program, which gives landowners financial incentives to open their land to all sportsmen. Utah is also home to millions of acres of federal land that can be used by hunters.
That’s not to say there’s no value in the CWMU program, or that it’s a bad idea. It’s certainly good for wildlife and wildlife habitat, not to mention landowners and hunters with deep pockets. But when it comes to the average hunter, access to those 2 million acres is no sure thing, especially when you consider that only 14 percent of the state’s 3,200 CWMU big game tags were awarded to Utah residents in the 2009 permit drawing.
What’s your take on this program?