Big changes pending at Boquillas Ranch

DON MARTIN/Special to the Miner<br>
With the possibility of access fees being charged to sportsmen on the Boquillas Ranch, the Mohave Sportsman Club may not vote to continue to hold the cleanup effort, which was started over 21 years ago.

DON MARTIN/Special to the Miner<br> With the possibility of access fees being charged to sportsmen on the Boquillas Ranch, the Mohave Sportsman Club may not vote to continue to hold the cleanup effort, which was started over 21 years ago.

I've said it many, many times before in past articles I've written in the Miner about sportsmen and the almost unfettered access they have enjoyed on the Boquillas Ranch. And I hate to point my finger at some of my friends and say, "I told you so," but guess what? It finally looks like it is going to happen.

It is like a tsunami on the horizon.

It's coming, and it appears that barring some kind of major meltdown, there's nothing much that can happen to stop changes to future hunter access on the 750,000-acre Boquillas Ranch in Unit 10.

What is going to bring about this change is outlined in a 13-page Arizona Game and Fish Department document entitled "Cooperative Stewardship Agreement For Recreational Access."

I had learned from various sources that for some time the department was actively working on an agreement with the Navajo Nation, which owns the almost 500,000 acres of privately deeded lands within the ranch boundaries. Discussions were also held with the Cholla Land and Cattle Co., which currently leases the ranch from the Navajo Nation and runs the livestock operation there.

Then I learned there was an item on the agenda for the Jan. 11 Game and Fish Commission meeting which addressed a written proposal and a Power Point presentation to the commission about the access proposal.

To my knowledge, that is the first time the information on the proposal became public.

Some sweeping changes were being proposed by Game and Fish. I spoke with Region 3 Supervisor Tom Finley at the Game and Fish awards banquet last Saturday night and requested a meeting with him on Monday to go over the document.

When I got it, I was shocked at what I was reading and had many questions for Finley.

Our two-hour-plus conversation was cordial and pleasant and the longtime departmental employee was very open and honest when it came to answering the questions I asked.

Finley told me a lot of history about the access issues on the Boquillas Ranch, some of which I did not know.

For instance, did you know that there has not been a signed access agreement between the Navajo Nation and the department regarding access on the ranch for many years?

"Each year we just kind of held our breath and hoped that things would stay the same," Finley said.

Finley pointed out that in the past, the department had conducted projects on the Boquillas to help mitigate issues caused by wildlife and/or sportsmen, including grading ranch roads using department equipment, funding for cleaning out stock tanks, habitat improvement projects, placing informational signs on ranch access points and patrolling the vast ranch during hunts. There was also a sign in/sign out system put in place to see who was utilizing the ranch.

And let's not forget how the Mohave Sportsman Club held an annual ranch cleanup up out there for 21 years.

But despite all of that, it finally came to the point where the Navajo Nation said it was going to close down the ranch.

"I got a call last fall from an official with the Navajo Nation and was told that the tribe intended to close down the ranch to hunters effective Jan. 1, 2013," Finley said. He noted that as private landowners, the Navajo Nation controls access and has the authority to close the ranch.

But the call came with an offer for Game and Fish to meet with tribal officials and the Cholla Land and Cattle Co. Once more, all the parties involved would sit down at the table and Game and Fish would try and write up an agreement that would continue to allow sportsmen access to the ranch.

Finley said he was assigned to write up the proposal by Game and Fish Director Larry Voyles and Deputy Director Gary Hovatter.

"It has been a challenge, for sure," Finley said. "I feel like I have a big bull's-eye on my chest."

Finley noted several times that sportsmen need to understand that the document has not been signed by all the parties and is actually going through a third revision at this time.

And Finley noted that the bottom line is that the Navajo Nation could legally, at any time, close the ranch to hunter access: "They are already empowered to do what they want as far as access on their private property is concerned."

Despite all those admonitions, I think it is going to be a done deal.

So let me get right to point and list some of the things that may be of interest to you as a sportsman who wants to hunt on the Boquillas.

Remember, this information is off the draft that was presented to the commission. And as Finley noted, there are other revisions that already have been made. So some of these actions may be subject to change.

First of all, the ranch is going to start charging what is called a Recreational Impact Fee of $60 for a recreational user over 18 years of age. The fee for guides is $200. I should note here that these permits are for each hunt.

So if a sportsman has drawn two big game tags and wants to hunt on the Boquillas both times, they will have to pay for two separate RIF fees.

Anyone who helps or assists on big game hunts will also have to pay the $60 RIF fee. There are a number of exceptions to this, especially when it comes to youth hunts and disabled hunters.

The proposal contains 26 ranch rules. I don't have enough room here to list them all.

Here are a few. The ranch will not be open year-round. Rule 5 of the 2013 Ranch Rules state: "Access by Recreational Users to the Big Boquillas Ranch will open 10 days prior to the archery-only pronghorn hunt opening date (late August). Access before that date is prohibited on the Big Boquillas Ranch, unless otherwise expressly authorized in writing by the Lessee."

Under Rule 6, "Access by Recreational Users to the Big Boquillas Ranch will close five days after the conclusion of the December antlerless elk hunt. Access after that date is prohibited on the Big Boquillas Ranch, unless otherwise expressly authorized in writing by the Lessee."

That means no January archery deer or javelina hunts. There will be no general javelina hunts in February or spring turkey hunts on the ranch. The ranch will not be open for prairie dog hunting in the summer. Organized predator hunts may be allowed on a case-by-case basis.

Here are just a few of the other ranch rules that may be in force this year.

Under Rule 14, "The use of trail cameras, scouting cameras or any other automated remote device camera systems is prohibited on the Big Boquillas Ranch."

Rule 15 states, "The construction of or use of blinds or tree stands (commercial or otherwise) is prohibited on the Big Boquillas Ranch."

Rule 16 states, "Hunting within 100 yards of a water source is prohibited on the Big Boquillas Ranch."

Other proposed rules state that:

"The use of any substance to attract wildlife (baiting) is prohibited on the Big Boquillas Ranch. (rule 20)

"All spotlighting is prohibited on the Big Boquillas Ranch." (rule 25)

Now, many may feel that these rules are unreasonable. But think of the alternatives.

One is the ranch could be completely shut down to all sportsman access.

The other, which may be called "elitist," is what is going on the ORO Ranch right now. In that situation you must call the guide (Chad Smith) who controls access to the ranch, and you must pay fees according to what you have a tag for.

Those fees are not chump change, especially for elk. I was told that fees from $8,000 to $10,000 for elk seem to be the going rate there.

The same thing also happens closer to Kingman on the X Bar One Ranch in Unit 18A. Again, you have to contact the ranch owners and pay fees, depending on what tag you have drawn.

At this point there are many, many more questions that are going to have to be answered for sportsmen who I feel aren't going to particularly embrace this proposal. In the end, I bet after all the whining and griping by sportsmen, they'll pay the fees and continue to hunt out there.

I've suggested to Finley that some kind of public outreach should be done to let sportsmen know why this has all been proposed.

Times have changed and so have the rules for access on large blocks of private lands.

Wildlife and sportsmen no doubt cause an increase in ranch operations. The Cholla Land & Cattle Co. says they spend $500,000 annually in maintenance on the Boquillas. However, there is no way that all of that can be attributed to wildlife and/or sportsmen.

But it may be reasonable that a private landowner can obtain some compensation - and I don't mean landowner tags - for allowing access on their lands.

Right now, sportsmen from all over the nation are applying for antelope and elk tags in Arizona and in Unit 10. There are almost 2,500 elk tags proposed for Unit 10, and 145 antelope tags.

Know that if you apply for any of those tags and draw them, there is a very good chance that at least some and maybe all of the rules outlined here are going to apply.

If you want a copy of the original document, it is a public record and Region 3 should provide it for you.

If you have concerns, questions, or suggestions, contact Finley at tfinley@azgfd.gov.