Pay to play 

Access restricted at Teller Wildlife Refuge

Framed by snowy mountains and an ash-gray sky, the Bitterroot River courses slowly through the Teller Wildlife Refuge. Only the sudden flush of pheasants rising out of the brush and the flutter of mallard ducks gliding toward hunters’ gun sights breaks the calm. Lately though, birds aren’t the only ones at the refuge who find themselves under fire.

Longtime supporters of Montana’s only private wildlife refuge say that changes underway at Teller threaten to make it an exclusive haven for the elite, though others fiercely defend the recent changes as a positive step necessary to keep the refuge running.

In 1987 Otto Teller, a seasonal resident with a passion for conservation, founded the Teller Wildlife Refuge, which sprawls across 1,200 acres of bottomland near Corvallis. A gem of the Bitterroot Valley, the nonprofit refuge is home to healthy wildlife populations and has long been a favorite spot for bird and deer hunters. It’s also an outdoor classroom for hundreds of local schoolchildren who take fieldtrips there.

Last summer, the refuge began implementing a plan to restrict access by limiting use during certain months and on certain parts of the property for public hunters, refuge volunteers, donors and other users like school groups.

“We were forced to do that because we were loving this property to death,” says Dan Walker, Teller Wildlife Refuge’s executive director. He says Teller Conservation Director Sam Lawry developed the plan to meet wildlife and habitat needs as a first priority and, second, to accommodate a wide range of human users.

Walker also recently convened a new Conservation Council, a group of 10 supporters who each donated $25,000 to refuge coffers. In exchange, the donors get special consideration to hunt, fish or hike at the refuge, he says.

The Conservation Council is just one method the refuge has developed to obtain more money. In 2005, the board of directors, which had long been stacked with local conservationists, changed its makeup. Steve Powell, acting director of the Bitter Root Land Trust and a Teller Refuge board member since 1995, says the refuge board reorganized by recruiting out-of-state directors who could afford large financial contributions. Many former local board members then accepted seats on a refuge advisory board, which didn’t vote on refuge decisions and in September elected to dissolve itself.  

For some, the board restructuring signaled a new emphasis at the Teller. Marshall Bloom, a longtime leader of Montana Trout Unlimited and former Teller board member, says he declined to remain involved with the refuge after its reorganization.

“The real power of local conservation groups here has always been through recognizing they need to be integrated into the community and that perspectives of local conservationists need to be paramount and that we need to make sure the little guy has a seat at the table,” Bloom says. “I think I had a concern
that the Teller, for which I have great affection, was going to move away from that toward a more exclusive type of organization.”

The new access plan doesn’t sit well with other longtime supporters who say the decision to restrict public use while providing special privileges to major donors validates Bloom’s fears.

Land Tawney, a former Teller advisory board member, has a long history with the refuge, thanks to his father, Missoula lawyer Phil Tawney, who helped to place the first conservation easements on the land.

“I’ve been hunting there since I was not old enough to carry a gun. It’s where my conservation ethic was formed,” says Tawney. But he’s concerned the access plan divvies up privileges in a way that favors the wealthy over members of the public. For instance, the “North Property,” 260 acres near the main refuge that’s renowned for excellent hunting, is now closed to public access. But at Walker’s discretion, donors, volunteers or overnight guests (old homesteads on the refuge can be rented nightly) can hunt, fish or walk there.

“The way the plan is moving forward is not in the spirit of how [Otto Teller and Phil Tawney] wanted this to be set up—there are privileges being given to a few when there’s opportunity for privileges to be given to the masses,” Tawney says.

Ben Deeble, former president of the Big Sky Upland Bird Association, says his group used to educate youth hunters at the refuge but cancelled the program this year because of the new access restrictions.

“Some of our board members had heard about what appeared to be exclusive arrangements being made there for hunting and were put off by feelings that the place was being rapidly privatized by the elite of the community, leaving fewer opportunities for rank-and-file Montanans,” Deeble says.

Walker says hunting comprises just a small component of the overall activity at the refuge, and he points out that large donors allow the organization to cover the costs of managing public hunters. He’s proud the refuge has found ways to fund its work. And, he points out, the Teller doesn’t necessarily need to allow any public access, but has nevertheless elected to do so.

“From a business model [standpoint], if we were strictly trying to get the dollar, we would do away with the public component, but it’s important to us to maintain that,” Walker says.

Powell also rebuffs those who say the refuge is just catering to wealthy donors. “If this were a pay-to-play deal and the benefit was flowing to those with big checks, I wouldn’t support it with my time and energy as a board member,” says Powell.

Of course, the bigger context for this debate at the Teller Wildlife Refuge is the rapidly changing face of land ownership and access statewide. Tawney, Deeble and others don’t want to see a local treasure sell out to high bidders because it’s already happening in too many other places.

“This is a microcosm of what’s going on across Montana,” says Tawney. “We have changing land ownership in Montana, and we need to be proactive to work to continue conservation and continue our outdoor legacy that was given to us by those who came before us.”
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