Ecological reserve or hunting grounds?
The Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve, the 4,000-acre preserve that sits adjacent to and just east of Upper Bidwell Park, is about to become much more accommodating to hunters, possibly at the cost of education and research, two of the reasons the reserve was created in the first place.
This past year, during the first season, hunting was severely limited on the reserve, with only three hunters allowed on the property at any one time and then only on weekends, alternating Fridays and Saturdays with every other Saturday and Sunday.
Apparently the rules have changed. When contacted via e-mail, Roger Lederer, manager of the reserve, said the state Department of Fish & Game has “effectively demanded increased access” for hunting.
Lederer said that, although all the details from DFG aren’t in yet, hunting will now be allowed on 90 percent of the reserve, up from 70 percent, and 15 hunters a day will have access. Hunting will be allowed in the lower canyon, and rifles will be legal. Last year only shotguns were allowed.
Henry Lomelli, a DFG representative, said those numbers are merely proposals at this time and the final plan, which would allow the hunting of wild turkey, deer and quail, will be negotiated over the next few weeks.
“Last year was a test, or pilot study,” he said. “We wanted to put a few [hunters] out there and see how it went.”
He said DFG wants to establish a hunting policy for the next five years so that negotiations don’t have to take place every year.
He said because hunting is such a sensitive issue, he expects that in the end “nobody will be happy, but we want to make sure that nobody is left out in the cold.”
The reserve, owned and operated by Chico State University’s Bidwell Environmental Institute, was purchased for $3.68 million last year using money from a number of federal and state sources, including $1.69 million from the state Wildlife Conservation Board, an arm of DFG.
The main purpose of the reserve, university officials said, was for research, education and habitat preservation. In accepting the grant from the WCB, however, the university agreed to make “provisions for public hunting” on the property, according to the terms and conditions of the grant.
Some of the folks who helped put the deal together were initially concerned about allowing hunting on the reserve, saying research and hunting were hardly compatible.
“We got into it for habitat protection,” said Suzanne Gibbs, a local environmentalist who helped launch the project. “And what a great outdoor habitat laboratory this provides.
“But what if policy changes,” she asked earlier this year, “and more people want to hunt? Can’t have a mix. Even if no one got shot, the hunters would still scare away the wildlife. And then the thought of little kids up there studying nature and here comes a hunter with Bambi’s mother strapped across his back. Yeah, I’m a little broken hearted. I wanted it reserved for wildlife and research. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine hunting on a preserve.”
Gibbs has since moved to Medford, Ore., and is no longer involved with the reserve.
Lederer, a former Chico State biology professor, said it has been “extremely difficult dealing with the DFG representatives, as they are only interested in hunting and basically have ignored our concerns.”
Those concerns include the privacy and safety of the reserve’s neighboring landowners, who wanted a ban on fishing in the reserve, and the availability of public access for non-hunters, who will not be allowed to enter the reserve even with the required permit on the 52 days out of the year when hunting is permitted.
That recommendation comes from the university’s attorney in the matter, Jeff Carter, who negotiated the first year’s hunting conditions. Earlier this year Carter told the News & Review the university had to scramble to close the deal because a party from the Bay Area was looking to purchase part of the property and use it as a private hunting reserve.
An e-mail sent last month from Steve Dennis, Chico State professor of recreation and parks management, to Lederer expresses Dennis’ concerns that the university could be sued under the state’s Recreational Use Statute “that covers landowner’s allowance of use under dangerous conditions.”
“Rec use permits issued for time periods when hunting is occurring could very well constitute negligence on BCCER’s part,” Dennis wrote. “Hunting needs to be separated from other uses by time, by space, or by both.”
Michael Jones, a citizen watchdog for public access to public lands and close observer of the creation of the reserve, argues that such reasoning puts hunting “in competition with everyone else for use of the reserve.”
He says the statute provides immunity from liability to private landowners who open up their property for public recreational use.
“I support the hunters because that is what the land was bought for,” Jones said, “as well as compatible recreation, fishing, research, and especially habitat for rare species.”
Meanwhile, Lederer is concerned that the policy changes being forced by DFG could cripple the fund-raising needed to maintain the reserve as “donors and granting agencies look askance at a reserve that is hunted.”
“I have a number of ex-students who have gone to work for Fish & Game,” he said. “Most of them feel they ought to be the stewards of California’s natural resources rather than cater to the hunting public,” which accounts for only about 1.5 percent of the population of California.
But DFG officials, Lederer said, have made it clear to him that "their sole interest in the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve is hunting, period. If that causes us problems, so be it."