Since late September, a media-shy collection of ranchers, legislators and sportsmen (that is, hunters) has met with Arizona Game and Fish commissioners and staffers in a basement room of the House of Representatives. The group has been discussing whether the state should pay ranchers to compensate for the forage that elk eat.
It is also examining an unusual alternative: a plan that would allow the state to turn over partial ownership of elk to ranchers, so they can charge hunters upward of $10,000 for the rights to shoot the hungry beasts on public lands.
The "discussion group" was assembled by House Speaker Mark Killian. There's been nary an environmentalist in sight. And, although they have been invited repeatedly, officials with the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the land where 80 percent of the elk and a hefty percentage of the ranchers live, have failed to show up at the committee meetings.
The meetings have, as yet, produced no definitive result.
But they have illustrated the tension among ranchers and hunters and Game and Fish officials.
The tensions burbled to the surface when state Representative Jean McGrath insisted, with trademark stridency, that Game and Fish lobbyist Rich Stephenson leave the meeting.
"It's not intended for legislative liaisons," she trumpeted.
The meeting was by invitation only. There was even some buzzing and humming about whether a reporter should be allowed to attend a meeting of public servants and private interest groups aimed at formulating public policy for wildlife on public lands.
But eventually, discussion turned to the problem at hand: an estimated 30,000 elk that browse through the higher elevations of Arizona, mostly on national forest lands. And though they are noble beasts, and quite tasty, elk can chew their way through grasslands like long-legged rodents.
Their numbers are increasing. Because there are no natural predators in Arizona capable of taking down elk, they must be controlled through hunting.
Ranchers say there are far too many elk on the lands they lease from the state and federal government, eating them out of house and home.
"You just can't allow a state-managed resource to affect a person's business," says Jim Klinker, a spokesman for the Arizona Farm Bureau who accuses the Game and Fish Department of not taking appropriate elk-control measures.
"We think there has been mismanagement, particularly of the elk herd," he continues. "The elk herd has been allowed to grow at the expense of the person leasing the public land. And the only flex in the system has been the rancher has had to cut back on cattle."
Klinker says he feels that if ranching becomes too financially difficult, the ranchers will go out of business and sell their private landholdings. Those lands will then be developed, he says, and elk habitat will disappear altogether.
Even though most of the elk live on federal lands, in legal terms they belong to the state. And, in a complicated way, the ranchers believe the state-owned elkare depriving them of their constitutional property rights.
The argument goes something like this: State-owned elk eat grass growing on land that the ranchers lease from the federal government. The lack of grass affects the ranchers' business profits. The state doesn't properly limit the number of elk. Therefore, the ranchers argue, the state is actually violating their constitutionally guaranteed private-property rights.
Given the hazy constitutional underpinnings of this tortuous argument, it's no wonder that the loudest voice on the committee belongs to Mike Foster, the ombudsman for private-property rights, a lawyer hired by the Legislature to represent private-property owners against the government.
Foster denies that the committee is expected to draft legislation.
"These are people who have traditionally been at odds," he says. "The purpose of the committee is to bring them to the table."
Nevertheless, Representative McGrath has already entered into the minutes a rough draft of a bill that would compensate ranchers for elk damage to their lands. McGrath's bill is a slap at the Game and Fish Department; it sidesteps that agency in the evaluation of the elk damage a rancher claims, but then demands that Game and Fish make compensation for the damage.
Though the committee has not yet discussed McGrath's bill, hunters and Game and Fish officials are adamantly opposed to depredation payments.
But they're curious about "Ranching for Wildlife," a program that would give ranchers incentives to tolerate or even encourage elk on their ranches.
"A subsidy is when you get something for nothing," says Art Porter, chairman of the Game and Fish Commission. "And if he [a rancher] is willing to give up, say, whatever 100 cows is worth to him, to make room for more wildlife, he wants to be reimbursed for that loss. Otherwise, why would he take the cut?"
One such compensation would be to give a rancher a certain number of elk permits that he could sell on the open market.
The idea has come up before in Arizona, first in 1989, and then again in 1992. The current discussion uses a program in Colorado as a model.
The Colorado program, however, is aimed not as a solution for elk depredation, but rather as a way of enticing private landholders from selling off their properties for subdivisions of houses and condos.
Another difference: The Colorado program deals with private land, and it requires that a rancher or a consortium of ranchers hold at least 12,000 contiguous acres with large elk and deer populations.
According to testimony given to Killian's discussion group, Colorado ranchers are capable of making more than $1 million a year selling elk-hunting packages.
The packages sell for $10,000 or more apiece. And if that price seems excessive, consider Arizona's Fort Apache Indian Reservation, which sells 60 elk hunts a year at $12,000 each. There is a five-year-long waiting list for the hunts.
And the Arizona Bighorn Sheep Society auctions off a bighorn-sheep hunt each year; last year's winning bid was $230,000. The year before, it was $303,000, which was contributed to the Game and Fish Department.
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But wildlife ranching has drawbacks. One rancher might manage his land to attract elk; those elk may end up eating his neighbor's pastures.
And, unlike Colorado, Arizona has very little privately held land. Any wildlife ranching program would have to take place on public lands--and allowing ranchers to charge people to use public lands is bound to raise a ruckus centered on whether hunting rights constitute yet another public subsidy for ranchers.
Still, Pete Cimellaro of the Arizona Wildlife Council, a member of the discussion group who is adamantly opposed to depredation payments to ranchers, softens when he talks about wildlife ranching.
"Wildlife are in great demand in our state--through viewing and through hunting," he says. "It's much more popular than grazing a cow out there. But if a rancher were willing to take a reduction in his grazing allotment and instead make improvements on his land to accommodate wildlife--we would be encouraged then, and believe it would be possible to compensate them in some way.