Every winter as Montanans store hiking boots and pack away rifles and shotguns for the season, about 80 telephone interviewers take to the phones to interview hunters about their luck in the hunt.
The interviewers, seasonal Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks employees, spend nearly 9,000 hours annually gathering data from over 80,000 households in order to produce statistically accurate reports on the statewide harvest of big game, including moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, deer, elk and other species.
The resulting harvest reports help biologists in formulating harvest quotas and regulations for the next year.
For Kyn Whiteside of Livingston, the winter surveys are as much a Montana tradition as the fall hunting season. "I started as an interviewer over 20 years ago," Whiteside said. "At first it was a way to earn extra money to help raise my children while talking about hunting—an activity that is important to my family. Now it’s a part of my routine."
Interviewers work from statistically accurate random samples of hunters by license type. Most of the interviewers work from home to make local calls within their geographic areas, and they say they enjoy talking to new and long-time area hunters.
Whiteside mentioned that getting to know the hunters she calls sometimes makes collecting information easier.
"I’ve been calling some folks for so many years, it's just like a conversation now," she said.
Bernice Hash, a Billings surveyor of over 20 years, has also seen the benefit of calling each year.
"Many of the folks didn't remember the details of their hunt the first time, so I reminded them to keep a log. They usually remember if I call them again," she said.
Friendships have developed between the interviewers and the hunters.
"They know me by my voice now," Whiteside said. "Some hunters say they are waiting for my call each year."
Hash has a distinctive voice that has even been recognized on the street.
"I had a man come up to me one time and say ‘you’ve called me for years—I know your voice,' " Hash said.
Resident big game hunters and nonresidents who hunt moose, bighorn sheep and mountain goats have been surveyed by telephone since 1981. All residents without an available phone number, and all other nonresident license type holders, are contacted by mail.
To some, the post-season surveys have become a part of their hunting traditions.
"I've had hunters tell me that they talk about me around the campfires on their hunting trips," Whiteside said. "They wonder what I look like, or if they have ever passed me in the streets without knowing."
When asked why she keeps calling year after year, Hash credited the enjoyment she gets from hearing hunters' stories.
"My husband says he'll walk into the room to find me laughing. I find myself looking forward to hearing all their latest adventures."
Surveyors spend long weekend and evening hours on the phone, times when most people can take their calls. Their work is often packed between other jobs, school, and raising a family.
"Every year, I think maybe I’ll just goof off, take some time to myself, or go on a vacation," Whiteside said. "But every year I come back."