Montana 2016 hunter numbers expected to surpass ’15

MILES CITY — With the big game season recently concluded, Block Management Program Administrative Assistant Bea Sturtz sits at her desk, busily counting thousands of hunter permission slips. The slips are turned in by landowners participating in the program that opens 2,290,000 acres in southeastern Montana to hunting. Slips will keep filtering in until after spring turkey season, when Sturtz will have a final tally.

Last year, nearly 45,000 hunters accessed Block Management Areas in Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Region 7, spending a total of 78,826 hunter days in the field. From early numbers, Sturtz thinks this year could be even better.

“It was a good season,” she said. “It was busier for sure than last year, and we saw more hunters overall. I think hunters were finding game; the numbers are definitely up.”

Most hunters were after mule deer, which are rebounding well from recent lows. And although it’s a younger age class of deer right now, hunters reportedly were happy with their opportunities.

Block Management is heavily used by residents and non-residents, but Sturtz still encounters misconceptions about how it works. With another general season in the books, she offered some suggestions that may help hunters better utilize the program.

Access not about big bucks

Sturtz said the most common misconception is the type of information that she can provide to hunters who call or visit the regional headquarters in Miles City.

“They assume that because we’re with Fish, Wildlife & Parks, we’re going to know where the big ones (bucks) are, but it has nothing to do with that. We’re just here to help people find access to private lands, and I think that gets lost,” she said.

Sturtz’s assistant, Cori Enders, added, “They want to know where all the animals are, and the big ones, and the biggest populations of animals, by species.”

Hunters choose where to go

Some hunters say they will go wherever the staff sends them, Sturtz said, “but it’s up to the hunter to decide where they’re going to hunt because it’s such a big area.”

The staff may ask people where they want to base their hunt, how far they are willing to travel and how much they want to walk, which can make a difference. And they do call landowners throughout the season to ask what type of game they’re seeing, in part to direct hunters toward better opportunities and to disperse people.

“Antelope populations are doing better in the southeast corner,” Sturtz cited an example. “But then they (landowners) get overwhelmed, so I try to find a different area for them (hunters) to go.”

Big parcels not always better

Hunters tend to want large parcels of land to hunt, but sometimes landowners limit access within those BMAs. Also, hunters may be overlooking opportunities elsewhere.

“They need to know not to avoid those smaller areas, because sometimes they can be a hidden gem,” Sturtz said.

Permission isn’t automatic

Access programs can vary from state to state, and Sturtz cautions hunters that access here is not automatic. “You still have to make that step to get permission,” she said.

Some hunters think they can get permission just by calling FWP, but the agency only provides them contact information for landowners. There are two ways to gain permission to hunt: Type 1 BMAs allow a hunter to sign in at a box on site, and Type 2 BMAs require permission from the landowner or a representative. Even then, access is not a guarantee if the landowner is booked on a particular day or has certain stipulations.

Have a backup plan

“A lot of BMAs book up pretty quickly, like the Powder River and Ekalaka areas where there aren’t a lot of BMAs, because game numbers are doing well over there,” she said. “They should always have a backup plan. If this one isn’t going to be open for that day, they should maybe look at another one, and I’ll give them the option to pull a different (contact) number.”

Remember common courtesy

Hunters are asked not to book more than one BMA per day. Sturtz also reminds them to call and cancel a reservation if they fill their tag or change plans, so the landowner doesn’t have to turn other people away. Another tip is to call only at the time designated by the landowner, and to remember time zone differences. Even if hunters use the same unit year after year, they should still check to see if contact numbers, times or restrictions have changed.

It’s about relationships

Landowners tell staff that they appreciate hunters who don’t take access for granted, are grateful for the opportunity and take the time to build a relationship with them, even if it’s mostly by phone. Some think they get a better group of hunters through the program because they have to call first. Besides the fee the state pays landowners per hunter per day, they also get help with signage, maps and permission slips.

In some cases, landowners and hunters form bonds that last for years, Sturtz said.

“The program has been around a long time now. You’re looking at 30 years of history that they may have established with a family.”

Do your homework

Region 7’s Block Management Program offers hunters a lot of opportunities, “but it’s still just one tool for access, and hunters have to do their homework,” Sturtz said.

“You can still use public land, and you can still knock on a door,” she added.

One thing hunters can do to prepare is order the Block Management Access Guide in advance, which is available in print and online in mid-August. The guide lists participating landowners in 13 southeastern counties, along with what types of game their land typically supports. Sturtz said the Hunt Planner on FWP’s website is also a good tool. The Hunt Planner combines updated maps with hunting regulations and statistics. Maps are available online beginning Aug. 15 but are removed in January.

As long as hunters have realistic expectations about what the program can do and are willing to put in the time, Sturtz is confident that they can have a very satisfying experience.

“I’ve heard comments from hunters from other states who really like this program and wish they had it in their state,” she said.

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