How public wildlife became something for sale

Everyone should read this, in part because I think a major effort to privatize wildlife and to have livestock associations assume de facto control of state wildlife departments is afoot.

How public wildlife became something for sale. By Mark Henckel. Billings Gazette Outdoor Editor

This article is precisely about what Robert Hoskins, Mack Bray and many others have been writing about on this blog.

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Related story. The battle for access. Billings FWP commissioner’s proposal ignited latest flare-up. By Mark Henckel. Billings Gazette Outdoor Editor





  1. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins

    This article points to the single most important strategic problem we as conservationists face: the privatization and commercialization of public resources.

    Privatization and commercialization of public resources is an aspect of the larger political and social problem of the conscious destruction of civil space, of the common good, of the public interest.

    We call this process totalitarianism.

    It is happening right now in this country.

  2. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    I agree with Robert. We need another way of financing fish and game departments other than by license and tag fees. The present form of financing forces wildlife departments to be managers of a state game farm for the benefit of hunters and outfitters. Non-consumptive uses of wildlife are given little value. Wild animals are valued by the amount of revenue they bring to F&G departments, or in the case of wolves, de-valued because they might disrupt the cash-flow.$$$$$$
    Our Fish & Game Departments, along with state and federal governments, have been taken over by a Chamber of Commerce mentality. $$$$$$$
    As a life-long hunter, I am concerned when rich Bighorn Sheep hunters bid hundreds of thousands of dollars for a sheep permit. It encourages cheating and poaching.
    Locals in Canada, told me that a wealthy sheep permit buyer fired his first outfitter, when the outfitter refused to take him into a closed area. He had better luck with his second outfitter. He killed a world record ram. $$$$$$$$$

  3. Brian Ertz Avatar

    i think that framing that ‘civil space, common good, public interest, public domain’ idea or value is important. i dunno — somehow that connection needs to be made and initiatives of education regarding wildlife and wild places could be supplemented by education/framing concerning what that common/public domain is and why it’s important… this of course could be really framed across domains as we see this privatization incursion throughout the civil domain (i.e. airwaves, schools, much product/innovation of academia pushed along by grants, etc. are ours just as public land is – yet increasingly all are treated as though private industry has some ‘right’ to eclipse commonly held values in its pursuit of marketable reasource/real-esate – even when that ‘resource’ is our children’s minds in schools (pepsi !), wildlife habitat on public lands (oil, gas, timber, forage !), and leased airwaves of which billions are made.

    somehow that meme of what it means to be public needs to be amplified…

  4. Monte Avatar

    Sounds like communism to me.

  5. Monty Avatar

    I saw a public auction on TV of bull elk (in a fenced enclosure) with 6 to 8 point antlers that sold for between $10,000 & $22,500 each. The 8 pointer was magnificant & sold for $22,500! I assume these are “breeder bulls” for “hunting petting zoos” where the fat over weight, excessivley rich can harvest their off spring in fenced enclosures & proudly hang the elk’s head on their wall.

  6. TPageCO Avatar

    I think it’s important to recognize one of the reasons why the shift towards privatization of wildlife is occurring: Quality hunting on public lands is becoming more difficult to find for many reasons – bad land and wildlife mgmt, ORV’s, more hunters stuck in the same areas, aggressive outfitters, etc. The experience on private land is much better, so those with the ability to pay for the privilege of having a good hunt are increasingly doing so.

    Fenced shooting is not part of this discussion as these animals are considered to be domestic, and it’s not hunting, period.

    If F&G agencies around the west started to manage for something other than the maximum number of targets for the maximum number of people in the field, and the BLM/FS started to do something about the ORV explosion, habitat degradation, and the morass known as multiple use management, we might see an improvement in public land hunting. If there was more quality hunting to be had on the public ground, the landowners/outfitters would not have so much influence.

    As someone who has always hunted public land, I’m hopeful this will happen. In the meantime, I don’t have a problem with large landowners managing for quality wildlife herds that I don’t get to hunt. They are just doing what should be done for the benefit of wildlife – controlling access, ensuring proper age/sex ratios, habitat improvements, safe and secure birthing/winter grounds, etc.

    As an earlier post noted, it’s all about how F&G agencies are funded.

    Finally, I think the outfitter set-asides are one of the worst ideas ever. I can’t believe they are legal.

  7. Brian Ertz Avatar

    Sounds like communism to me.

    Monte, if anything anyone wrote sounds like communism to you – i would encourage you to pick up an American history book – and consider the patriots that brought all American’s the natural places and rule of law protecting wildlife that exists today.

    the suggestion that wildlife and wild places commonly held in trust and managed in such a way representative of that commonality is some che gueveran allusion is exactly the problem.

    that publicly held “properties” aren’t treated with the same regard ought be a crime – if it isn’t already. that’s our “property” ~ it shouldn’t be looted by marginal/extractive/private interests to the detriment of those who own it.

  8. Brian Ertz Avatar

    “who own it” = whose trust it is held in

  9. Monte Avatar

    Do not tell me that outfitting on private land is the commercialization of wildlife. If private land is managed well and wildlife thrives why shouldn’t landowners profit from this? Public land is obviously a different story as it is abused by ATV’s and managed poorly. Why do you have a right to animals on my land that I manage properly just because you have soiled your own nest on public land? You don’t, to say you do is communist. That is my point. To complain that outfitters tie up too much private land is ridiculous, this is just jealousy over better wildlife due to better management than fish and game departments provide.

  10. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Wildlife is not owned by private individuals. They are legally of the state.

    These animals have to enclosed for them to be owned. Then they are no longer legally wildlife, but another classification such as livestock.

    See the essay I wrote about this today.

  11. TPageCO Avatar

    I don’t have a problem with outfitting on private land – I do have a problem with those outfitters getting guaranteed tags for their customers while the rest of us come up empty in the draw. It’s even worse when those tags are valid on public land too, as is the case in most states. I agree that landowners should be able to profit from well-managed private land wildlife programs, but they also need to be aware that most animals move from public to private ground (theirs and others), and that the herds don’t exist in a vacuum.

    Heck, as a non-resident landowner in Montana working actively for good land, water and wildlife management on a substantial piece of land, I can’t even get a deer tag without going through the draw, while some clown who’s paying an outfitter big bucks can get any tag they want.

  12. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    There are some very creative outfitter-elk ranchers. One near Gardiner, Montana discovered he could double his elk herd overnight by putting hay near his fence and then opening his gate and letting semi-wild Yellowstone elk in and then closing the gate and claiming the elk as his. He got caught and put out of business.
    Another outfitter in Idaho would collect the unused tags from his unsuccessful hunters and then shoot the deer and elk later for his own use. He got caught with several illegally killed animals hanging in his barn.
    I suspect that the are a lot of “creative” outfitters that live in less visible areas that have not been caught.

  13. Cowboy the Cat Avatar

    This is one of the reasons I hate the “checkerboard” land ownership. It was a dumb idea in the 1800s and it facilitates the land-locking that is common for these for-profit hunting ventures. Monte, it is not communist for me to demand access to public land. It is criminal for a private land owner to surround public land with his own and then deny me access to it. You can not de facto own public land because you own access to it. Unfortunately, people do. I agree, that it’s fine to guide hunts on private land, but it needs to be done without restricting the movement of wildlife. Like Ralph says, once you hold them in one place, feed them, and facilitate the breeding of individuals you like, they are no longer wildlife and you might as well brand them and put ear tags on them.

  14. TPageCO Avatar

    In my experience, you don’t need to restrict the movement of animals… the terrible management practices on public land that compromise animal security do it for you. What elk worthy of the name would be on public ground when it looks like a bunch of pumpkins sitting in a knapweed patch crisscrossed with ATV trails?

  15. d.Bailey Hill Avatar
    d.Bailey Hill

    I have been trying to post comments for about three weeks. my computer is supposed to be fixed. If this disappears, my computer is getting pushed out the second floor window……..

    “The Culture of Owning” an essay by Eric T. Freyfogle , printed in Orion magazine, 2005, is a great article addressing private land use and what is best for the “common good of the people”. Here is a passage that really stands out; “Liberty as an individual autonomy, as the right to do as one pleased, seemed depend upon open land, available for the taking. The land, though, had largely run out, …. So long as the grass remained alive and lay to the west, in an open landscape full of opportunity, liberty might prevail. But what would happen when the last of the land was taken and the last of the grass turned under?”
    I think the article answers that question; privatization. If you can’t pay for the privilege, oh well too bad for you.
    Property rights are way past due in needing to be redefined. The degradation of the environment and all related effects can’t be allowed to continue in the current manner. I just returned from spending a few days driving around Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia. I saw mountaintop removal areas for the first time and went to Centralia, PA, the site of the coal fire that has been burning for 45 years, and brown water coming from the spigots in southern WV. The air is even a different color. In just the last 10 years things have gotten much worse. I’ll end here before i go way off topic.

  16. JB Avatar


    The reason that wildlife is not privately owned in the U.S. is because the people that settled here had learned that private ownership of wildlife meant that only the rich had access. You couldn’t hunt the King’s deer in the King’s forest if you were Joe Schmo. In the U.S., neither the deer nor the forest belong to the king, they belong to us all. If enjoying this makes me a communist, oh well. That label doesn’t have the sting that it had a half century ago when that moron McCarthy was conducting his witch hunts.

  17. Cowboy the Cat Avatar


    I know there are places where public land looks like crap, but come on. You don’t really believe that. There are vast areas of public land that are excellent elk habitat, and they are migratory beasts by nature, so they generally won’t sit in one spot no matter how much alfalfa you put out for them. These are not CATTLE!

  18. Ralph Maughan Avatar


    See my story on the Pinedale, Wyoming elk trapping currently taking place.

  19. TPageCO Avatar

    Cowboy –

    OK, I was exaggerating to make a point – it only seems that way during the rifle season. I am a public land hunter after all, and I’ve still got a few honey holes where if you walk uphill for a few miles where there is no trail, one can usually find some elk. I don’t know about “vast areas”. When I look at my forest maps the good areas are usually pretty small, steep and isolated.

    Still, studies (which I don’t have links to) have shown that elk are spending more and more time on private ground in places like the Flattops. Reason? Maybe disturbance, maybe feed…I don’t know.

  20. Mack P. Bray Avatar
    Mack P. Bray

    Larry, I agree, of course, that we need another way of financing Fish & Game departments other than by license and tag fees. There’s a Fish & Game association that explores some very creative methods; Florida is (or will) tacking additional monies onto speeding tickets and those additional monies go to their Fish & Game department.

    However, I am of the opinion that the Public Trust Doctrine requires states to manage wildlife on behalf of all citizens, regardless of the source, or lack thereof, of any/all income streams.

    And I hope to get an attorney’s opinion on this issue.

    Mack P. Bray
    My opinions are my own

  21. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins


    You don’t need an attorney’s opinion; that is the case.

    However, you should be aware that it is a “use” doctrine, but it is amenable to conservation and preservation. It relates more to public usufructory rights rather than rights in fee simple. Where wildlife are concerned, their proper legal status is ferae naturae, or wild by nature, not “owned” by anyone. It’s a different way of looking at social relationships, a better way than the stereotyped private property rights regime.

    The key point of the doctrine is to derail private designs on public resources.



Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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