This Land is Your Land

Advanced hunting program expands to Flathead Valley, offers lessons in land ownership, ethics and etiquette that transcend the field

By Tristan Scott
Views of the proposed Lost Trail Conservation Area. Photo by Chris Boyer/Kestrel Aerial Services

With a rich hunting heritage that tracks back decades, Montana has consistently ranked near the top in the nation for per capita participation as resident and nonresident hunters alike seek out the Treasure State’s abundance of access to public and private lands for hunting and fishing.

Despite its capacious inventory of public lands (Montana boasts 28 million acres for hunting, hiking, camping, and countless other outdoor pursuits), the majority of the state’s lands are locked up in private ownership. However, in Montana that mix of public-private ownership has sown a deep-seeded respect for both individual property rights and the public’s right to access.

Indeed, knocking on a rancher’s door is a commonplace courtesy — as well as the law of the land — which hunters and anglers learn early on in life, and frequently discover amazing opportunities with nothing more than a polite doorstep “knock-and-ask.”

To maintain that balance, Montana has a suite of programs for private landowners who wish to allow public access, including the Block Management Program, which provides cash compensation to hundreds of landowners in exchange for hunter access. The Unlocking State Lands program, meanwhile, gives a tax credit for access across private land to landlocked state parcels.

However, change has been in the wind over the past decade, with public hunting access to private lands decreasing each year, as farmers and ranchers increasingly point to hunters’ behavior and lack of deference as the reason for closing their lands or withdrawing from the state’s programs.

“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,” Martha Williams, director of Montana fish, Wildlife and Parks, said in voicing her support for a new educational program.

Enter the Montana Master Hunter Program, an advanced hunter education program founded in Bozeman that bills itself as an “innovative solution to improve hunter ethics, while also creatively looking at new access opportunities.”

Led by the nonprofit organization One Montana, the Montana Master Hunter Program launched in 2018 with limited offerings, but recently announced its expansion in Montana, with locations for classes in 2021 including Kalispell, Bozeman, Great Falls, and Miles City.

Applications for the program begin Oct. 1, 2020 and continue through Nov. 20, with selection being announced by the end of the year. The program cost is $375.

“One of the primary goals of the program is to build trust and working relationships between landowners and sportsmen and women,” according to Everett Headley, lead instructor for the Master Hunter Program, which beginning in 2021 will offer classes in the Flathead Valley.

“The program provides hunters the opportunity to learn from landowners about the challenges they face on a daily bases and specifically how wildlife impacts them,” Headley said, emphasizing that the program seeks to help landowners and the state with their wildlife management goals.

“By working with landowners Master Hunters also help to change false perceptions about both hunting and agriculture, and ultimately work to increase access opportunities for future generations,” Headley said.

The program includes classroom and online instruction, as well as field work, and courses cover wildlife management, history of conservation, hunting culture and ethics, private land stewardship, shooting accuracy and precision, lead-free ammunition, hunting skills, and more.

“Our instructors have a wide diversity of knowledge and perspectives and in include ranchers, farmers, university faculty, professional shooting instructors, wildlife managers, and wildlife biologists, and Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks personnel, among others,” Headley said.    

To date, 165 hunters have successfully completed the course, and the program has helped open more than 200,000 acres to hunting access.

“This growing network of other like-minded hunters stretches from Whitefish to Miles City,” Headley said.

For more information on 2021 course dates, instructors, sample curriculum, and eligibility requirements, visit mtmasterhunter.com.

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