“I never wanted it to be a hunting club,” said John Bruce, who founded the Columbia Plateau Wildlife Management Association 12 years ago. “Some wanted that, but I held firm.”
The group manages hunting access to 6,550 acres of private land near Cheney, a number that’s likely to increase by 2,000 acres this winter. Hunters selected for access permits hunt free of charge while participating landowners are paid $1-$2 an acre.
“The idea from the beginning has been to improve landowner relations while opening more land to hunting,” the retired horse rancher said.
A decade ago, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife publications warned hunters to be sure they had access to land in Game Management Unit 130 before applying for deer or elk permits.
“Basically, all the private land surrounding Turnbull (National Wildlife Refuge) was tied up,” Bruce said, noting that much of the land was being leased by small groups of hunters or simply closed by landowners tired of trespassers and unethical hunting.
Bruce said he started the association, donating a couple thousand dollars a year of his own money to help participating landowners with fence and habitat improvements and then patrolling their land. His wife kept the books and scheduled hunters.
This year, the Bruces are easing out of the program to let a volunteer board run the nonprofit corporation. The group partners with the Fish and Wildlife Department for “hunting by written permission” signs and special landowner hunting permits issued to help minimize big-game damage to crops.
Hunters have two opportunities to hunt on Columbia Plateau properties:
• General season hunters buy their tags over the counter and apply for the association’s June lottery drawing. Winners are placed in slots of several days during their designated deer and elk seasons for archery, muzzleloader and modern firearm. Special consideration is given to youth, disabled and senior hunters during periods when they can hunt antlerless whitetails. Moose and turkey hunters also are being accommodated.
• Raffle elk permit hunters are assigned monthlong slots from January through March, a prime time to fill a tag after the general seasons when landowners need help deterring elk damage to crops and haystacks. This season, the association’s landowner hunting permit raffle is offering 13 antlerless permits and two bull permits.
Another bull tag for the properties was drawn by a hunter in the state-sanctioned lottery drawing.
Raffle prices are $10 a chance for cow permits and $25 for bulls. Hunters can enter as many times as they can afford by downloading applications from the association’s website. The drawing will be held Sept. 18.
Money collected from raffle chances pays for the hunting leases.
These late-season raffle permits are transferrable. “If you can’t hunt or you get your elk during the regular season, you can give – or even sell – the raffle permit to somebody else,” Bruce said.
“We’re a nonprofit group and we also depend on donations from individuals,” Bruce said. Donations, which have been made by several sportsmen’s groups, have included equipment and materials for habitat improvements as well as cash.
The association has about 80 members who “pay the $20 annual dues just to contribute,” said John Phillips, treasurer.
“The members and the board don’t get any special considerations or access,” he said. “We wish more of the hunters selected to hunt would become members, but they don’t have to.”
So far, 175 hunters have been scheduled for general season hunts this fall out of the 240 who applied. “That’s likely to increase because if a hunter is successful or has to cancel, we can fill the remaining days in his slot with a hunter from the waiting list,” Bruce said, noting that 190 hunters were placed in slots last season.
Deer hunting can be good, and the hunter success rate for elk is 13 percent – that’s 3 percent higher than the overall average for the area, Bruce said.
“Landowner relations are our top priority and game management is second. Hunters are used to accomplish these priorities.
“If we get a bad apple, that person will not be allowed to hunt on these properties again. We’ve barred only one hunter in 12 years.”
Preseason game surveys are being coordinated by Gerry Hickman, association president and a retired Fish and Wildlife Department habitat biologist. He’s also helping plan habitat improvements approved by landowners
Benefits to participating landowners include liability protection, eligibility for deer and elk damage permits and volunteer labor for wildlife damage issues.
“We schedule and manage the hunters and the landowners have priority for hunting on their own property,” Bruce said. “Then we patrol their property. We’ve definitely helped our landowners reduce headaches with trespassers.
“I’m really pleased at how it’s developed,” he said. “I was criticized by some hunters who said I was trying to tie up land when really I’m trying to open up land. We don’t twist anybody’s arm. The landowners lease to us for a reason.”
The hunting is scheduled in advance with no way to predict how much the elk or the weather will cooperate.
“Last season in the first week of January we had bout of weather that had the elk congregating on one property,” he said. “We had five hunters booked, but only one showed. He got his elk in an hour and we could have filled several other tags, but the hunters didn’t show up.
“Hunting elk here is just like hunting anywhere else: When the weather is bad, you want to be there.”