HELENA, Mont. — Outdoor equipment retailer Cabela's is trying to improve its image in Montana, where some sportsmen are concerned the company's real estate operations spur ranch sales and cost them opportunities to hunt.
An executive for Nebraska-based Cabela's told Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks commissioners Thursday that the company will change how it markets Montana ranches and will give the state agency $110,000 for land-access programs.
Cabela's entered the real estate business several years ago. The company markets properties, but sales are handled by independent real estate agents with whom Cabela's has agreements. Sportsmen say the company's advertising has touted ranches as offering exclusive hunting opportunities that could involve denying access to nearby public land used for hunting.
"I can't fight gazillionaires over (access to) a road, that's been there since statehood, once they put a gate up," said Rod Bullis, a hunter from Lincoln.
Cabela's Vice President Mike Callahan said ensuring people have opportunities to hunt is essential to the future of the company, which sells merchandise through 130 million catalogs distributed nationwide and through its Web site. The company also operates about two dozen stores in the United States.
Under new policies, Cabela's will not advertise the prospect of subdividing land in Montana, Callahan said. He also said the company will not list property if a state land-access program called block management covers it and terms of the sale preclude transferring the block-management contract to the new owner. The block management program pays landowners to allow public hunting and covers about 8 million acres in the state.
Commissioner Shane Colton said there was no way to require that new owners of land renew block-management contracts once they expire.
"While we appreciate the gesture, there's no substance to it," Colton said.
Callahan acknowledged long-term participation in the program cannot be demanded, but said Cabela's requirement that it applies to existing contracts is meaningful.
Cabela's currently lists Montana ranches and other properties for sale at prices up to $6 million. A ranch in the Missouri River Breaks is described as having "monster bull elk." Others are presented as "a fisherman's dream" or as secluded places with fantastic scenery. The company's current real estate descriptions do not suggest exclusive Montana hunting opportunities.
Commission Chairman Steve Doherty said he finds a "bubbling cauldron of passions in Montana about lands and about wildlife." Besides the issue of public access, hunters find ranches that used to be open for hunting are now closed.
Some disturbed by Cabela's real estate marketing have destroyed their Cabela's catalogs or sent them back to the company in protest, according to Montana Wildlife Federation President Chris Marchion. The protests were independent and not coordinated by the group, Marchion said.
As for the $110,000, Callahan handed over a $50,000 check at Thursday's commission meeting and promised annual payments of $12,000 over the next five years.
Commissioner Willie Doll said he had concerns about accepting the money, but did not elaborate. He said public comment about using it should be obtained.
"I'll leave the check ... and it's up to you guys to decide whether you want to cash it," Callahan said.
Doherty, the commission chair, said he expected the money will be spent and suggested funding block-management contracts as a possibility.