Montana Master Hunter Program
50-hour course focuses on ethics, access and education for hunters
ENNIS - A new organization seeks to make ambassadors out of the students who go through its 50-hour course – ambassadors for sportsmen, for hunting, for the highly successful North American Model of wildlife conservation, for the outdoors in general.
“Hunting is fundamental part of the North American Wildlife Management model, but it is also a big issue that divides the recreational public,” said Zach Brown, Program Manager of the Montana Master Hunter Program. “Our over-arching goal is to create thoughtful, skilled, knowledgeable ambassadors to the community, to the landowner community, who have open minds and can learn, who have empathy and respect for ranchers and farmers.”
Back in 2010, One Montana, a non-partisan, Bozeman nonprofit dedicated to “moving Montana forward and ensuring a positive future for both rural and urban communities… helping them work together toward success,” according to the non-profit’s website, began facilitating a group called Common Ground.
Common Ground was a collaboration of state landowners, outfitters and sportsmen who embraced collaboration “as the most promising way to address the difficult issues of our time. Our goal is to change the way we think and act about rural and urban communities from divide to connect… and to work together to solve difficult access and land stewardship issues; to find win/win/win solutions for landowners, sportsmen and wildlife.”
That’s no easy row to hoe nowadays, largely because the rural vs. urban divide has created many schisms:
• Half a century or more ago, hunters were regarded as sportsmen, gentlemen or women who were skilled, conscientious, decent folks who understood rural life, and could relate to farmers and ranchers. Today, many regard hunters as Elmer Fudds, trigger-happy killers only too willing to “whack’em and stack’em,” the consequences – spooked livestock, open gates, litter and angry landowners – be damned.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2016 figures show that of 325 million people in the U.S., only about 15.5 million (4.75 percent) hunt, a figure way down from the nearly 10 percent who hunted two decades ago. Between 2008 and 2010, Montana alone saw a drop of almost 10,000 hunters.
• Land use is also changing. As the U.S. population grows, urbanization grows, gobbling up more ranches and farms. Along with this, landowners are changing. Across Montana – but especially here in Madison and Gallatin counties – landowner culture is changing. Dwindling are the multi-generation ranchers and farmers, who were often inclined to permit hunting on their ground. Many hunted themselves, and allowed neighbors, friends, second cousins and the polite hunter who asked to share their bounty.
Replacing them are people with different cultural expectations of owning land. The classic example is the wealthy coastal urbanite escaping urbanization. He or she buys up those multi-generational ranches, changing the nature of the working landscape. Up go posted signs, up go prosecutions for anyone crossing their private fiefdom.
• Meanwhile, because the agricultural economy is being squeezed from so many different directions and profit margins are threadbare thin, continuing ranchers and farmers are hard-pressed not to grab the easy money offered for a hunting lease on their ground.
Hunters often see leased ground, posted with no hunting signs, as the result of wealth, rather than effort. Some try crossing these boundaries – a violation of state law – to hunt as a form of rebellion against the rich vs. poor idea.
• Farmers and ranchers also have problems keeping slob hunters, those not following the rules, off their lands, preventing littering, dealing the result of gates not being closed, fires from vehicles parked over dry grass, and a host of other issues.
• Then there’s the second generation of hunters who have benefitted from state and national efforts to create more public and private land access so an expanding number of outdoor recreationalists – including hunters; but also hikers, backpackers, bird-watchers, kayakers, mountain bikers, ATV riders, horsemen, etc., etc. – have a place to go. These hunters have never had to ask permission to hunt from a landowner. Many, being urbanites, don’t know how to relate to a farmer or rancher.
Now, into this mess steps One Montana, seeking to “move beyond the contentious issues dividing (rural vs. urban people) and build trust to develop solutions.”
From Common Ground evolved the Master Hunter Program (MHP).
In late July, a pilot MHP certification program graduated its first class of 25. The student number was limited to 25, Brown said, to keep things simple and test this pilot effort.
The students, all Montana residents, from larger towns like Billings, Kalispell, Missoula, Helena and Bozeman, were drawn from an enthusiastic pool of applicants during the preceding six months, and they completed 50 hours of training focused on hunter education, ethics and practical skills like marksmanship.
To earn their certification, they passed an “exhaustive” written exam, along with a field marksmanship and ballistics course – led by Jordan Harmon and Jason George of 406 Precision, of Twin Bridges. Also, part of their outdoor course time was spent on the Granger Ranches, on Jack Creek Preserve, near Ennis, and ranch Managing Partner Jeff Laszlo, joined the students there to talk about ranching.
This class is now on a mission to improve landowner - sportsmen relations in Montana, Brown said.
“Our target audience is on mid-career hunters,” he continued, “with about five or more years experience in the field. Someone who has taken big game before but wants to deepen their skill set. We want to add to their knowledge and skills.”
“Hunting is a life-long learning process,” he continued. “You’ll never figure it all out; I’m always discovering how much I don’t know. This is by no means a shortcut (to achieving outdoor skills). We expose people to additional knowledge. Give them an opportunity to deepen their skills. Getting that certificate doesn’t means you’re a certified expert. And we’re not out to compete with youth hunter education.”
If the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) basic hunter education course – this is required of first-time hunters born after 1985, before receiving a hunting license – is a bachelors degree, Brown said, “We give them a Masters degree.”
“Our over-arching goal is to create thoughtful, skilled, knowledge ambassadors to the community, to the landowner community, who have open minds and can learn, who have empathy and respect for ranchers and farmers,” he said.
So how does MHP help students overcome some of the image problems hunters face these days?
“We focused on teaching the students about the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation,“ Brown said
This conservation model holds that wildlife is a public resource; that wildlife, game animals in particular, managed for sustainability, using science-based regulated sport hunting as the main tool for doing so, are self-perpetuating resources.
This model has proven itself over time, best demonstrated by the dramatic return of elk, pronghorn, wild turkey, waterfowl, deer, even bison and many game bird populations to abundance following near extinctions during the unregulated market gunning of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Also discussed was how federal Pittman-Robertson (P-R) taxes –taxes self imposed by hunters during the 1930s on hunting gear, firearms and ammo– fund wildlife management and have paid to create many of the public lands, especially state land, that outdoor recreationalists of all sorts enjoy today. Hunting is fundamental to conservation of all wildlife, because without hunters paying license fees and P-R taxes, non-game programs, wildlife education efforts and other non-hunting efforts conducted by wildlife agencies would quickly dry up.
Teaching the students about hunting with a respectful attitude towards landowners and wildlife; hunting discreetly, self-regulating (reporting game law violators and slob hunters) would go a long way towards re-shaping the image of hunters in the public’s eye, Brown said.
“Improving the public image of the hunter is a big part of what this course is about,” Brown said. “We want to create ambassadors.”
How does it address hunter ethics?
“The Boone and Crockett Club instructor (Keith Balfourd), had an interesting take on this during class,” Brown said. “Hunting ethics is a gray area. We strive to create space where we can grapple with gray issues with group. There is no perfect way to address, tricky and complicated issues”
For example, one “trend” that bothers many in hunting is a move toward hunters taking long range shots at game, “sniper hunting” some call it, popularized on outdoor television.
Having 406 Precision – an organization some perceive as a long-range shooting “school” – teach students about marksmanship and ballistics, might seem unethical. But that’s not what students were taught, Brown said.
Harmon and George focused on shooting skills, not encouraging people to wail away at game beyond their skill level.
“They showed students how long 400 yards – the far range length – really is,” he said. “They helped students match their skill set to their firearms, and helped them find their effective range, to know their limitation and find the range at which they were competent, accurate. “
In addition, the course focused on bridging the gap between rural and urban, by sharing with the students landowner perspectives.
Brown, 28, talked about the “high bar” to hunting access today – how many hunters didn’t grow up with landowner connections, how his father’s generation created their own hunting access by asking ranchers and farmers for permission to hunt their ground. Since FWP created Type 1 Block Management (an excellent program where private landowners receive benefits for allowing hunting on their lands), he said, we have seen a generation of hunters who have potentially never had to interact with farmers and ranchers.
“The Master Hunter program helps to address this,” he said, “we’re pushing to build relationships with ranchers and farmers, pursuing landowner/sportsman relationships to insure the future of hunting, as a cultural centerpiece, as part of the North American Wildlife Management model, as a unique way of life.”
“Farmers and ranchers need help managing wildlife,” Brown said, “and many hunters are looking for places to hunt.”
The Master Hunter program brings them together.
Brown pointed to access to elk hunting access, as example.
As a perk for completing MHP, students get access to landowner properties enrolled with the program.
“I want to make super clear, we’re not recruiting landowners out of existing access programs for this program, we’re not about to displace existing public hunters, we’re not competing with Block Management.”
“Our access agreements are flexible,” he said. “There are a variety of ways to do this – a rancher might want whitetails and cow elk hunting, but not others. He might limit the number of hunters permitted on his land, he might have some acres in Block Management, some in MHP. “
“Our hunters are not going to displace other hunters on lands. We’re hoping we can add access opportunities, not take away anything from anyone.”
Brown pointed to one MHP access easement in the Ruby Valley, where a rancher would permit grads to hunt cow elk on his land if they spent one six-hour day lopping conifer (a habitat improvement) on state land the rancher leases. The same rancher would grant access to isolated federal ground for archery bull elk hunting only if MHP grads spent four six-hour days cutting conifers on the state land.
MHP intends to expand the program and host classes in multiple communities in 2019, Brown said.
The curriculum would be developed and refined, the course streamlined down to 40 hours, including both classroom instruction and field experiences. More farms and ranches would be recruiting for the effort, and an on-line program to schedule hunts is being developed so participating landowners can reduce the amount of time managing hunting on their ground.
However, the fundamental aims of the program would remain the same:
To educate hunters about landowner issues like concerns related to hunter access, the economics of agriculture, the impacts that wildlife especially big game, increasing hunter knowledge and skills, and to build mutual respect and cooperation between landowners and sportsmen, and to create hunters who are role models for our youth and other hunters.