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Turner's Bar None Ranch is an example of a private landowner profiting off of public land and animals that the public pays for but can't access.
"We're not out to be total jerks," says John Hansen, assistant general manager of Turner Enterprises Inc. He's sympathetic to the criticism. "The way land is viewed has changed in the last 30 years," he says. "When I was young, we hunted a lot of private land. It wasn't this tightly held thing that it is today."
Hansen says running a ranch is more expensive than it's ever been, so a lot of people look to outfitting operations to be profitable. "We've seen the change in the value of hunting," he says. "It's gotten to be more commercialized, so there's an opportunity to make some income where there wasn't before."
In addition to its 153,000 private acres, Turner Enterprises leases 16,600 acres of public land in Montana, 2,760 of which are landlocked. They're working ranches designed to be collectively profitable, with bison as the main source of income. All, except for the Bar None (which is managed for trophy animals), are home to parts of Turner's 50,000-bison herd. Through the Montana Hunting Company, Turner Enterprises offers guided hunting trips on every one.
Landowners "want to protect that hunting," said Hansen. "We just happen to own a little bit more."
Hansen says he's only aware of a couple of trespassing instances on their properties. But to his knowledge, they've never prosecuted anyone for corner-crossing their lands. He says the majority of public lands Turner Enterprises is involved with are open for public access and most of the landlocked parcels wouldn't make good hunting anyway. His company has done land swaps with the DNRC to make some areas more accessible. Additionally, when herds have grown too large, the company has invited the public onto its ranches for cow elk hunts.
But, he believes, it's also important to respect private property rights. The company discourages corner-crossing, citing the stance of state agencies.
DNRC spokesman John Grassy says the state is doing the best it can to balance demands for public access, income for public services and profitability of land lessees, but it's complicated. The state was handed parcels all over Montana that everyone has a stake in. So, like the executor of a will, they're trying to give everyone their fair share, but it's not easy to keep all of them happy.
"The agency understands [wanting access]," Grassy says. "This isn't something we haven't done by design."
So when sportsmen see lands they can't access behind huge ranches, surrounded by barbed wire and no trespassing signs, Grassy knows why they're frustrated. Hansen knows why they're frustrated. Hunters like the Smith family and Robby Dundas know the frustration firsthand. But the state's options are limited. It's trying to open more areas to the public with land swaps, conservation easements and buying acres when the money's there.
"When it's right for the public financially and when it's affordable we'll do it," Grassy says. "Until then, they have to make do with what's out there."