Keys to the Treasure

Hunting accessThree innovative FWP programs help unlock access to millions of acres of priceless public and private hunting lands across Montana. By Alan Charles

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
November–December 2002

Ask most hunters what they consider the biggest challenge to hunting in Montana, and you might hear about the weather, the terrain, or a certain game animal’s habits. But the most likely answer will be, “Finding a place to hunt.” Whether a hunter is pursuing antelope in eastern sagebrush breaks, upland birds in central wheat fields, or elk in the western mountains, locating a place to hunt in Montana, especially a place where fees aren’t required, is becoming increasingly difficult.

Though the overall number of hunters is not growing, competition for existing access is. Today’s hunters spend more days afield, yet find fewer gates open. Landowners restrict access for a variety of reasons. Sometimes gates close after a landowner witnesses dangerous or unethical hunter behavior. Some landowners prefer to lease their lands to an outfitter. Others close their property to public hunting entirely, either to maintain exclusive access for themselves and close friends, or to prevent wildlife from being shot.

Nevertheless, hunters in Montana still have some of the best hunting opportunities available anywhere in the western United States. The state has nearly 35 million acres of state and federal land, and approximately 57 million acres owned by 28,000 farmers and ranchers, and hunters can choose from a wide variety of options to secure hunting access. Much of that access is due to several innovative and, in some cases, little-known programs run by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and funded by hunters.

Private land access programs have been around in one form or another since the mid-1970s, funded, in recent years, primarily from nonresident hunters’ license fees. Beginning this year, however, all hunters in Montana have begun funding FWP efforts to maintain and improve public hunting access. The money comes from a new mandatory Hunting Access Enhancement Fee ($2 for residents and $10 for nonresidents) required the first time a hunter purchases any type of hunting license during each license year (March 1 to February 28).

The money, along with funds from other license sales, is being used to run three programs under Montana’s Hunting Access Enhancement Program statutes: Block Management (private land access), Access Montana (public land access), and Special Access Projects (localized species-specific projects).
Montana FWP remains committed to maintaining and improving public hunting access. For the 2002 hunting season, it has allocated approximately $5 million to fund these three programs.

Such a high level of funding for public hunting access enhancement may not continue for much longer, however. In 1995, FWP was granted only temporary legislative authority to enhance existing hunting access programs and fund them through a new variable-priced outfitter-sponsored nonresident elk and deer license. In 1999, the temporary authority, called a sunset provision, was extended, but only to March 1, 2006. That means the Montana legislature has only two sessions (2003 or 2005) to either extend or remove the current sunset provision. Otherwise, FWP will automatically lose the authority and funding sources for its current hunting access enhancement programs.

Sunset provisions are attached to legislation so that new or experimental programs can operate for a trial period of time before being evaluated to determine if they are worth continuing. So that hunters and private landowners can judge for themselves whether these three hunter access enhancement programs are worthwhile, here is a brief summary of how each one has progressed over the past six years since 1995, when the enhancement programs were authorized.

Block Management
The best-known and most fully developed of the hunting access enhancement programs, Block Management has been in existence formally as a program since 1985. But it actually began informally back in the mid-1970s, when FWP staff began to recognize that public hunting access to private land was diminishing. Biologists were concerned that, without access, hunters could no longer effectively control big game populations. So the department began making it easier for private landowners to allow public hunting on their property by establishing walk-in areas, posting signs delineating public and private land boundaries, and publishing maps.

In the early years, the agency could only focus on small areas involving a few acres. But thanks to expanded funding and authority, FWP now negotiates access agreements with landowners throughout the state, often for up to five years at a time. For the 2001 hunting season, approximately 1,100 landowners enrolled nearly 8.6 million acres in the Block Management Program, and more than 180,000 hunters logged more than 356,000 hunter days of recreation on Block Management Areas (BMAs).

Block Management is a cooperative effort among FWP, private landowners, and public land management agencies to help landowners manage public hunting activities and provide free public hunting access to private and isolated public lands. The program’s name refers to its goal of blocking together large areas of land under one system of access requirements, management objectives, and hunter-use rules. Cooperative agreements are negotiated among the landowner, FWP, and appropriate public land management agencies (such as the federal Bureau of Land Management) to determine how public hunting access will be managed on lands under the landowner’s control.

Landowners are provided with various benefits for enrolling land in the program, including compensation ($12,000 per year maximum), a complimentary resident AAA Sportsman’s License (or, in the case of a nonresident landowner, a complimentary nonresident Combination License or compensation, but not both), limited liability protection, livestock loss reimbursement, and various hunter management tools. These include signs, maps, permission books, and, in some cases, the assistance of seasonal FWP staff to help manage the BMA.

FWP does not actually lease the lands enrolled in Block Management but rather contracts with individual landowners to determine how they will manage public hunting activities on lands under their control. The payments and other benefits help compensate landowners for any inconvenience that may result from allowing public hunting on private land. For instance, some landowners have to do additional noxious weed spraying due to more hunter traffic from weed-infested areas. Roads rutted from hunters’ vehicles may require more maintenance, and increased public hunter activity may require a landowner to install additional fencing, gates, and cattleguards. Moreover, increased public hunting often means a landowner spends more time answering phone calls, helping retrieve downed game, and otherwise dealing with hunters.

Each year, by August 15, FWP publishes a list for each of the agency’s seven administrative regions that provides information about lands enrolled for the current hunting season. Included in that information is each BMA’s location and size, the opportunities offered, and the method for obtaining permission.
Not all BMAs are the same, and not all FWP regions administer the program the same way. Type I BMAs, for example, either allow hunters to sign themselves in or have no permission requirement. Type II BMAs are areas where someone other than the hunter administers permission. These are often areas that limit hunter numbers, require advance reservations, or have other hunter management restrictions.

Some FWP regions manage hunter information requests and reservations by automated phone systems. Other regions funnel all hunter permission requests through FWP staff specifically hired to buffer landowners from being inundated by too many hunter contacts. And some regions arrange self-help stations at regional headquarters where hunters can select maps and information for the areas where they might like to hunt. Thus, the Block Management Program has been adapted to meet the diverse needs of different hunters, landowners, and FWP administrations across Montana.

So far, it appears that people like what they’re seeing and experiencing from Block Management. In 1997, FWP surveyed landowners and hunters to learn what they thought of the program (see sidebar at right). Since 1999, hunters have been asked to return postage-paid comment cards, which act as a sort of hunter’s report card for each BMA hunt. Hunters are asked to answer several questions on the comment cards: Did you see the game being hunted? Did you bag any game (and, if so, what was it)? And would you rate your BMA experience as satisfactory or unsatisfactory?

For the 2001 hunting season, more than 12,500 of these cards were returned. Of the total number of people who returned cards, 76 percent indicated they had seen the game being hunted, 24 percent indicated they had bagged some type of game, and 81 percent rated their BMA experience as satisfactory.

Though most hunters like Block Management, that doesn’t mean they all do. Some contend that BMAs are too crowded, lack the game animals they seek, or are poorly administered. Examples of comments from hunters dissatisfied with Block Management include: “Too many hunters!” “All the bucks shot out!” “Too many road closures.” “You should publish one book with all the BMAs in the state in it.” “All BMAs should have the same rules.” “The map didn’t show pasture fences or access roads—I got lost.”
And some hunters simply don’t like how the program has changed, in their minds, the traditional relationship between hunters and landowners. As one hunter noted, “I feel this program is going to lead to fee hunting of all private land.”

Landowners, too, have mixed reactions to the program. On one hand, only 5 percent annually choose to not renew their Block Management contracts, and usually more landowners want to enroll in the program than funding can accommodate. On the other hand, some landowners don’t like the program, such as those surveyed in 1997 who wrote comments such as: “Too many hunters!” “Hunters only want to shoot bucks, and I need does harvested.” “I wanted deer hunters and only got bird hunters.” “Every hunter wants to hunt on opening day.” “Hunters seem to think that, just because I enrolled in Block Management, hunting on my land is a right, not a privilege.” “My neighbor’s Block Management hunters keep crossing over onto my land, which isn’t in Block Management.”

Is Block Management successful? Despite some criticism, it appears so, judging from hunter and landowner majority opinion. But whether it will continue in the future—and if so, what
it will look like 10 years from now—depends on hunters, landowners, and other citizens working together with FWP to develop programs that meet the multiple needs of hunters and landowners in a rapidly changing Montana landscape.

Access Montana
Though Block Management is the most widely known, two other important FWP programs also help increase hunter access to hunting land. One, formally introduced as a program in 2000, is Access Montana, which operates under the same statutes and funding sources as Block Management. The program was spawned by a law that required, beginning with the 2000 hunting season, all hunters who hunted on private land to obtain landowner permission beforehand. Before that time, only big game hunters were required to obtain landowner permission, unless the land was properly posted to signify that the landowner wanted all hunters to ask first.

The new law put more responsibility on the hunter’s shoulders to ensure that he or she knew whether land was public or private. In response, FWP developed Access Montana to help reduce land access conflicts and help maintain and improve access to the more than 35 million acres of public land in Montana.

FWP staff members work cooperatively with private landowners, the federal Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to establish access corridors across private land to reach isolated public lands. In addition, the agency has hired seasonal staff to help mark public land boundaries that historically have been hard to find. Several regional Access Montana projects focus on public lands where existing public access does not exist or is threatened by changes in adjacent private land ownership.

The Access Montana Program has also produced several free publications to help hunters get access to public hunting land (see sidebar at right). And because disputes sometimes arise between hunters and private landowners over what land is public and what isn’t, the program also has produced a form that hunters and landowners can fill out to document public land access conflicts so that FWP can help resolve them.

Special Access Projects
Block Management and Access Montana have done much to enhance hunter access to private and public lands and improve relations between hunters and landowners. However, some additional access issues have arisen in recent years that those two programs weren’t equipped to handle. Fortunately, the state Hunting Access Enhancement Program statutes also authorize FWP to initiate additional programs or efforts to improve hunter access. In 2001, the agency began developing the Special Access Projects Program, which focuses on regional species-specific hunting access needs. For example, some projects help local groups of hunters, landowners, and FWP staff find innovative ways to manage elk herds and public elk hunting on private land. In these cases, a hunt coordinator has been hired to help hunters gain access to elk during the hunting season. Other examples include regional projects focused on improving access for pheasant, waterfowl, and spring turkey hunters.

Though small in number, these and other special access projects fill a unique and important niche in FWP’s efforts to improve hunting access and resolve issues between hunters and private landowners.
There is little question that hunters will find it increasingly difficult to find free hunting access in the future. Some landowners need to attract hunting fee revenue to compensate for low grain and stock prices. Others have grown less tolerant of irresponsible hunting behavior. And more hunters want to hunt exclusive fee hunting areas.

Obviously, it’s beyond the ability of FWP to reverse these and other powerful social and economic trends. But the agency’s hands aren’t completely tied. It can continue to develop and manage diverse hunting access enhancement programs that benefit both the hunter and the landowner, trying to keep the gates swinging both ways. And by doing so, FWP can continue to work cooperatively with hunters and landowners to sustain Montana’s hunting heritage and traditions.Bear bullet

Alan Charles coordinates landowner/sportsman relations for Montana FWP