Hunters clash over ATV use in Nevada
RENO – Leonard Mackedon yearns for a simpler time when a hunter took to the field with only a rifle and his skill.
Mackedon is among a growing number of hunters who think the sport and land are being harmed by a relative newcomer to the backcountry: those who go off road to hunt using all-terrain vehicles.
The group of hunting purists is behind a push to get the Nevada Wildlife Commission to restrict hunters’ use of ATVs – a move the board acknowledges might be necessary to protect wildlife and public lands.
Traditional sportsmen accuse the mechanized hunters of disturbing their hunts, engaging in unfair chases for game and carving out more and more new roads in the remote regions of Nevada every year.
“Everywhere we went (on hunts), we saw tracks. … It’s tearing up the country I love,” said Mackedon, a Reno bird hunter.
Those who hunt on foot and horseback in Nevada aren’t alone in their anger over off-road vehicles, said Stan Rauch, hunter outreach coordinator of the Washington, D.C.-based Natural Trails and Waters Coalition, which seeks better management of off-road vehicles on public land.
In Wyoming, elk hunters complained to the state Game and Fish Commission that hunters using ATVs and snowmobiles were spoiling their hunting chances.
Last year, traditional hunters in Idaho successfully prodded their state game commission to restrict hunters’ off-road vehicles to established, major roads in portions of southern Idaho.
“It’s the start of a new movement in the West,” said Rauch, a big-game hunter from Victor, Mont., and life member of the National Rifle Association.
“It’s a sign of the ever-increasing number of ATV users, and hunters saying ‘we can’t take it anymore.’ I’m sure we’ll see additional states come out and restrict off-road vehicles,” he said.
Responding to opposition by ATV riders and others, the Nevada Wildlife Commission shelved a proposal in February to prohibit hunters from driving ATVs more than 25 yards off established roads on public land.
But commissioners plan to consider other options after hearing from federal land managers about efforts to keep hunters and others to established roads.
With off-road vehicle use soaring and continual improvements in technology, more land will be scarred by ATVs unless they act, commissioners warned.
“ATVs will crash brush and go places where other (off-road vehicles) couldn’t,” said Commissioner Eric Olsen, himself an ATV owner. “I see it as a real problem that we need to address.”
Angry machine hunters went before the commission in December to voice opposition to the proposed ATV restrictions. They say the plan unfairly singles them out while shielding other users of public lands from any blame for new roads.
Mark Cooper of Sparks said the proposal also infringes on hunters’ Second Amendment right to bear arms.
“I’m facing another impingement on my rights because of this,” he said.
Gerald Lent of the Nevada Hunters Association said the proposal penalizes the elderly and handicapped, who without ATVS would lack access to the backcountry. Only a relative handful of hunters use ATVs irresponsibly, he added.
“I’ve not seen proof there’s a major problem. That’s why I want a scientific study,” Lent said.
No statewide study has been conducted, but a a BLM study found off-road vehicles have created 15 to 20 miles of new road annually in recent years in Duck Creek Basin near Ely.
Traditional hunter Dan Heinz said off-road vehicles have cut enough new tracks in the backcountry and he fears what the future holds in the nation’s fastest growing state.
Many machine sportsmen also hunt with cell phones, global positioning units and long-range telescopic rifles, he said.
“They’re trying to substitute technology for skill,” said Heinz, a Sparks-area retiree. “I’m heartbroken with the trend.”
Some sportsmen have been accused of using off-road vehicles to herd game to improve their chances for a successful hunt.
Mackedon questions whether hunters on ATVs are compromising one of hunting’s most important principles: a fair chase for game.
“Machines take the challenge out of hunting and put more pressure on wildlife,” Mackedon said. “I don’t know when the sport changed but it has. I think we’re at an important juncture.”
State wildlife commissioners said most Nevada hunters acknowledge a problem with off-road vehicles and want it addressed. The dispute centers on what approach to use, they said.
Federal land managers said they also are aware of the threat and are trying to deal with it.
Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth has identified unmanaged recreation as one of the four biggest threats to national forests and has formed two teams to tackle off-road use.
Plans call for each national forest to use a community-based process to determine which roads to close and keep open, spokeswoman Christie Kalkowski said.
“We want to make sure they (public) have quality recreational opportunities while balancing that with the need to protect our natural resources,” Kalkowski said.
Using information from diverse groups, the BLM is taking steps to address specific problem areas in Nevada, such as Duck Creek Basin and Sand Mountain near Fallon and Wilson Canyon near Yerington.
But off-road vehicle use is expected to remain unrestricted in the foreseeable future on most of the BLM’s 48 million acres in Nevada, spokeswoman JoLynn Worley said.
“If we don’t seize the opportunity … somebody will do it for us,” said John Moran Jr., state wildlife commissioner. “And it could be the federal government and they could close it all down.”