One Montana’s Innovative Hunting Access Program
In our three previous articles on hunting access, we’ve reviewed state-managed hunting access programs, public land access, and private land access. In this article, we’ll review an innovative approach to private land access in Montana, facilitated and funded by One Montana, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.
Access: The Future of Hunting
Montana has consistently ranked near the top in per capita hunting numbers and has a rich hunting heritage that goes back decades, with resident and nonresident hunters having abundant access to public and private lands for hunting. Knocking on a rancher’s door was commonplace and hunters from all over the country found great hunting opportunities with nothing more than a polite “ask.”
Although public lands comprise a large portion of Montana’s landscape, a great deal of hunting has occurred on private land, where hunters and landowners have developed friendships spanning many years. These friendships have been mutually beneficial; hunting opportunities for hunters and a variety of intrinsic and sometimes financial values for the landowner.
However, change has been in the wind, especially in the past decade. Public hunting access to private lands is decreasing each year, for many reasons. Hunter behavior is often pointed to as the reason farmers and ranchers are closing their lands, and although this is sometimes the case, there are more significant reasons.
Turnover of Montana’s farms and ranches with new landowners coming on the landscape is significant. These new landowners often come with different land use objectives and values. They also often place significant value upon wildlife values.
Much of the turnover is a product of the average age of large landowners coming of retirement age and decisions needing to be made regarding succession, including estate planning and challenges related to determining which, if any, children may be interested in staying on the property. Often, there are multiple heirs which, depending upon the situation, may lead to selling the property instead of passing it on.
As Montana properties grow in value, the decision to sell to out-of-state buyers can weigh heavily upon aging landowners who are facing decisions about succession and who will run the ranch in the future.
The growing value of properties, especially large ones, adds to the complexity. Potential buyers are generally not Montana residents and often aren’t involved in ranching. Their interest is often driven less by ranching income and more by amenities, which can include hunting opportunities for friends and family.
These newcomers, from states like Texas, with its age-old private land hunting access practices, often don’t share the traditional Montana values of sharing their property and wildlife with hunters, which translates to few hunting opportunities for the public.
Another significant factor related to hunting access on Montana’s private farms and ranches is related to economics. Farmers and ranchers deal with all kinds of challenges – weather, commodity prices, trucking regulations, international trade wars, and more.
As a result, hunting access has become a significant income-related venture. Individuals, small groups of hunters, and outfitters are paying large sums of money for exclusive hunting leases on properties with high wildlife values. These individuals, in cooperation with the landowner, can manage properties for older-age-class animals instead of Montana FWP’s management philosophy based upon “opportunity.”
This past winter, while mountain lion hunting with an outfitter friend, one of his clients from Michigan showed me photos of record-class elk he and his father-in-law were taking almost every year while bowhunting a private ranch they were leasing in eastern Montana. Quality like this brings significant income to Montana’s farmers and ranchers.
The end result is the fact that public access to private land is literally changing the face of hunting in the West. A recent study by Responsive Management, conducted under a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, found that access challenges are the #1 reason people decide not to hunt. Why is access important? Quite simply, the future of hunting in North America depends upon it.
The Common Ground Project
“One Montana” is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Bozeman. Its mission is dedicated to helping Montana’s rural and urban communities work together toward ensuring a positive future. One Montana is responsible for many collaborative projects to connect urban communities, and among these projects is the Common Ground Project. The Common Ground Project emerged about six years ago in an effort to examine hunter/landowner relations and explore ways to enhance public hunting access on private lands.
One Montana formed a collaborative group of individuals including farmers, ranchers, sportsmen, outfitters, and legislators and charged them with researching hunter/landowner relations and developing ways to connect them to improve overall benefits to both. This group met for three years and reviewed Montana’s Block Management Program (BMP), along with hunter access programs throughout the West, in an effort to develop recommendations for innovative changes to Montana’s 25-year-old Block Management Program.
After nearly two years of work by the Common Ground group, a comprehensive report and series of recommendations was presented to Montana FWP leadership. FWP leadership chose to not to accept their recommendations or make any changes to the BMP.
Although this seemed like a setback, the Common Ground group continued its work. They focused upon an important outcome of their research – the fact that there many landowners for whom payment for hunting access may not be as important as having ethical, competent hunters as guests.
Some of these landowners had dropped out of Block Management, while others had devised their own access programs in order to tailor big game harvest on their properties. Other landowners had leased hunting rights to outfitters, while others had allowed little or no public hunting simply because “you never know what you’re going to get” among random individuals.
Landowners have many stories of hunters committing just about any inappropriate act you can imagine. One landowner recounted having a doe hunt on his property where he invited public hunters to hunt specifically for whitetail does. In spite of detailed instructions, about one-third of the hunters killed whitetail bucks instead of does.
One Montana’s Master Hunter Program
So, the question for the Common Ground group became, “Where and how do you find the ethical and competent hunters these landowners desire?” In order to answer this question, an extensive one-on-one survey was conducted with landowners in an effort to identify characteristics they desired in public hunters for whom they provided access.
The results were used to compile a list of skills, knowledge, and competencies that landowners felt were very important for hunters to have in order to be “vetted” to hunt their properties. These subjects included:
- History of conservation in the U.S.
- Ethical hunting practices
- Land ethics
- Private property rights
- Weed awareness and identification
- Economics of farming and ranching
- Impacts of wildlife on farming and ranching operations
- Knowledge of all aspects of the hunt – hunting skills, woodsmanship, safety, game care, survival, etc.
- Ability to retrieve big game without landowner help
- Wildlife management, especially deer and elk
- GPS and onX Hunt skills and competency
- Shooting skills for ethical harvest
Once competencies were identified, the One Montana Common Ground group decided that a formal, comprehensive, advanced hunter education program addressing these areas was required in order to prepare the type of hunters the landowners expected. The challenge was to find someone to organize this content into structured classes, find an instructional team to teach the classes, recruit a pilot group of students, and teach the pilot program.
Along with a formal educational program, an outreach program was also necessary. This would identify landowners who were interested in providing hunting opportunities for hunters who successfully completed the course.
I (the author) was recruited to develop this program and develop a curriculum for a pilot course to be taught in spring of 2018. The pilot course consisted of 50 hours of classroom instruction, land navigation, and shooting skills.
A cadre of volunteer instructors were identified, including a University of Montana wildlife program professor, Boone and Crockett Club professionals, professional wildlife researchers, retired Montana FWP biologists, Montana FWP animal disease experts, retired Montana FWP game wardens, a USFS law enforcement officer, the Montana state lands access coordinator, Montana FWP Hunting Access Coordinator, and a Montana FWP education coordinator. An extensive shooting instruction segment of the course was taught by 406 Precision shooting instruction professionals from Sheridan, Montana.
At the end of the instructional period, students were required to pass a rigorous final exam and demonstrate their shooting competency and their competency in the field using the onX Hunt app/GPS tools. Students were required to navigate to waypoints, record tracks, download maps for use out of cell range, and generally understand all aspects of using a GPS.
They were also required to pass a shooting competency test after instruction by Jordan Harmon and Jason George of 406 Precision. The 406 Precision curriculum’s focus was to teach each student their maximum ethical and effective range. For some students, it may be the ability to consistently hit vital zone targets out to 200 yards. For others it may be 300 yards. At the end of the course, each certified master hunter knows and understands their personal maximum effective range.
Private ranches participating in the program were recruited one by one and the majority of certified hunters from the 2018 class had opportunities to hunt many of these ranches. Cooperating ranches ranged from small ranches to very large ranches such as Turner Enterprises, where almost no public hunting other than outfitted clients had been allowed.
Access is provided at no charge, unlike Montana’s Block Management Program, which pays ranchers to allow public hunting. Each ranch is unique in its hunting opportunities and some ranches have programs where certificated Master Hunters participate in ranch programs designed to enhance wildlife habitat, range management, and ranch improvements in exchange for special access opportunities.
At the end of the pilot instructional period, 25 students were certified as “Master Hunters”. They were then qualified to hunt on selected private ranches throughout Montana.
There are other Master Hunter programs in various states, such as Washington and Oregon. Manitoba has a Master Hunter Awards program which celebrates the hunting experience throughout one’s lifetime.
In comparison to these programs, the One Montana Master Hunter Program is truly unique. In part, this is because it is fully funded by private funds rather than a state agency. Private funding gives the program a great deal of flexibility in addressing curricular offerings, landowner needs, and hunting opportunities. The curriculum is also much more extensive, and the academic rigor and field tests far exceed programs with similar names. Finally, the landowner segment and hunting access set One Montana’s Master Hunter Program apart from all others.
The pilot program was so successful that the author was charged with organizing and teaching the 2019 Master Hunter Course in three different locations. In order to teach classes in locations 400 miles apart, we recruited 21 instructors. The 2019 classes have just concluded, with 68 individuals completing the course and being certified for access to hunt private ranches in One Montana’s Master Hunter Program.
Evaluations and the Future
In order for programs to be sustainable, they must be evaluated and improved regularly. After a year and a half of development, execution, and evaluation, this program has received very high marks from its students, sponsors, and landowners. Landowner feedback is critical, and it’s especially rewarding when our cooperating landowners tell us they’ve never had such respectful, ethical, and competent public hunters on their ranches. Funding from our sponsors into the future is also important and nearly all have stepped forward with multiple year pledges of support.
Our students and certified Master Hunters are our greatest advocates. They will tell you this program is way more than they expected, and that it was worth giving up a summer trip to make the time required for this program. The vision of One Montana and the Common Ground for the future is to continue building this program, while maintaining high standards for excellence.
Following are representative quotes from various stakeholders:
- “The One Montana Master Hunter Program will develop a network of highly skilled, ethical, and safe hunters that will serve as an example to others and help establish positive relationships with landowners. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is proud to support this innovative program.” Blake Henning, Chief Conservation Officer, RMEF.
- “Last night I left the class rendezvous with a full heart. I want to thank and commend One Montana for organizing such a positive experience and wonderful course. Everyone you recruited, from presenters to participants, was exceptional. Their commitment to the program speaks volumes to the vision you’ve created for the state’s sportsmen and landowner communities, and to your leadership. I’m proud to have taken part and look forward to helping promote the program in any way I’m able.” Gusty Clarke, 2018 Certified Master Hunter.
- “Though most hunters in Montana are good stewards and responsible hunters, concern over ethics is something we hear every year from both landowners and hunters alike. The One Montana Master Hunter Program is an innovative solution to improve hunter ethics, while creatively looking for new access opportunities.” Martha Williams, Director, Montana FWP.
- “Hunters would find more opportunity to hunt on private land if landowners knew hunters would be courteous, competent, and effective ethical hunters who respected the property and the landowner. Designed from the perspective of landowners, this course presents an opportunity for hunters to learn about agriculture and issues landowners face and to improve their hunting skills.” Scott Hibbard, Sieben Live Stock Company and Common Ground Member.
- “I want to thank the 406 Precision guys for giving me extra help. It was a complete 180 for me in my confidence and knowledge in shooting. I grew up hunting with my dad, but he passed before I was able to hunt myself, so most anything I’ve done has been self-taught, including shooting. After working with you guys, I feel 1000 times more confident. You exceeded anything I thought we were going to do/learn…” Wendy Curtis, 2019 Certified Master Hunter
As the One Montana Common Ground Board looks to the future, they’re confident they’ve developed a program that is unique, sustainable, and is a significant contribution to hunter education and private land access in the future.