Kristyn Brady

March 28, 2018

What If You Could Level Up on Hunter Education to Get Better Access?

A new certificate program in Montana helps hunters understand more about conservation, ethics, and respect for private land in order to gain access to more of it

Asking permission to hunt on someone’s land is a vulnerable proposition. There’s a tremendous upside for your access close to home, but it all depends on the landowner taking a bet on you, your skills, and how you’ll treat their property. And we all know that one bad actor can make this ask even more challenging for others.

That’s why a Montana non-profit with an eye toward improving sportsman-landowner relations and hunting access has created a program to certify sportsmen and women that they can vouch for with private landowners—some of whom have never opened their gates to hunters before.

“Landowners might not know what they’re going to get—it really makes a difference when someone comes to your property with an understanding of your needs, respect for your land, and respect for the wildlife,” says George Bettas, project coordinator for One Montana’s new Montana Hunter Advancement Program, which was created to promote safe, ethical, and responsible hunting on enrolled private lands through its Master Hunter certification course. “Our goal is to send out skilled, ethical hunters who landowners know they can trust, to hopefully create new opportunities on properties that have provided little to no access for hunters in the past.”

The certification program has a core curriculum with three parts: A history of conservation and hunting ethics, a section on the value of agriculture and the landowner’s perspective, and a field session for testing and improving competency with a rifle or bow. They will accept 30 applicants into the pilot course for rifle hunters this spring. The cost is $200, which covers a weekend worth of instruction, ammo, provided lunches, and facilities—but scholarships are available. Program leaders are looking for a diverse range of ages, backgrounds, and skill levels for the pilot course.

Part of the process is generating an awareness of a visiting hunter’s impact on the farm or ranch, and what kinds of activities may be happening on private land at certain times of year. Bettas hopes this will help create a bond between landowners and sportsmen, who will know enough to avoid crossing freshly seeded winter wheat or tearing up an access road with tire chains just to get closer to a downed animal. He believes more educated, ethical hunters are less likely to put themselves in danger, take a shot where they can’t recover the animal, or give up on a critical contract with the landowner—to help manage wildlife that damage crops or property.

“I’m confident that when we send the first 30 graduates out to hunt the available properties, they will be great ambassadors for hunting, and the landowners are going to want them back again,” says Bettas.

Two hunters at a BLM annual pheasant hunt to learn safe hunting techniques while enjoying traditional pheasant hunting.

Certified Montana Master Hunters will be able to access an online reservation system for enrolled properties made possible by Huntable.com, an Airbnb-like service that allows landowners to approve certain dates and know who is going to show up when.

There has been some criticism on the group’s Facebook page about the course being “elitist,” but Bettas stresses that anyone with some hunting experience can apply and potentially receive assistance with the fee. “Overall the response has been tremendous, and we hope to eventually make some of the coursework available online for anyone who is interested,” he says.

With the decline in hunter participation and a wave of out-of-state and urban buyers taking over properties that have traditionally been open to hunting and fishing, sportsmen’s access and landowner certainty about who they are letting use their property are as critical as ever in Montana. The TRCP has been supportive of the Hunter Advancement Program and certificate course, because it enhances access, promotes conservation ideals, and helps to retain active hunters who keep the $887-billion outdoor recreation economy flourishing. And farmers and ranchers who believe the best of hunters and anglers can often have an outsize impact on the health of fish and wildlife habitat, too.

Of course, you don’t need to be certified to build a relationship of mutual respect with a private landowner. But it’s pretty cool to see this example of a solution that brings both sides together to find common ground.

Montana residents can apply for the program here until April 1. For the pilot course, just 30 rifle hunters will be selected, and scholarships are available. Visit mtmasterhunter.com for details and to watch for future courses.

5 Responses to “What If You Could Level Up on Hunter Education to Get Better Access?”

  1. Glen Carlson

    I would do this in a heartbeat if it meant my sons and I had access to more land to bird hunt on or rifle hunt on. In Washington we have a tremendous amount of posting private land it makes this difficult. We have a master hunter program here in WA, but to my knowledge it does not include increased access to bird hunting.

  2. Jonny Fox

    Fantastic idea. Lack of available land to hunt is a primary reason non-hunters give me when they indicate interest in hunting but haven’t made the first step. Especially in the eastern states (MO resident), where public land is available but in much smaller allotments than what is available in western states.
    That being said, I have been fortunate enough to have taken many individuals on their first hunt on public land, and have sort of gotten their feet wet in the sport, enough at least to catalyze interest in further trips. Accessibility of additional private lands, commensurate with an increased awareness of how to treat the experience/land/landowner, would be a great bridge across the “I don’t have anywhere to hunt and public lands seem fairly packed with other hunters” gap.
    Great idea!!

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Travis Cooke

March 27, 2018

How Maintenance Backlogs Could Affect Your Hunting Season

Deferred maintenance projects without suitable funding crop up on more than just national park lands, and it could waste your precious daylight hours afield—here’s everything you need to know about the backlog issue, proposed solutions, and why it’s personal

Picture this: You draw a special deer tag in a unit you’ve never hunted before, and like most people, you’re busy. So, you study maps and satellite imagery to mark roads and trails on your GPS, but family and work obligations prevent you from being able to get out there and scout in-person.

You could be pulling into camp the day before a six-day hunt, with your entire strategy reliant on being able to use access that you’ve never laid eyes on. It’s not ideal, but it happens. And there is a real possibility that you’ll be confronted with washed out roads and deep ruts that make passage difficult or impossible by vehicle, while some non-motorized trails are so overgrown that you can’t even find them to hike on.

No one wants to burn up half their hunt frustrated by road and trail conditions that fall short of their expectations. But this kind of access to public lands has become more difficult for America’s sportsmen and women because of the massive maintenance backlogs at many federal land management agencies—not just the National Park Service. It’s time to recognize the breadth of this challenge and how it plays out during your hunting and fishing season.

Know the Numbers

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 36 percent of American hunters depend on public lands for some or all of their access. In the West, where the BLM oversees 245 million acres of multiple-use public lands, 72 percent of hunters rely on public lands. When the roads and trails on these lands become difficult to navigate, these are the sportsmen and women who waste their precious time afield and get frustrated with land managers.

Currently, the Interior Department has a maintenance backlog totaling roughly $16 billion. While the bulk of that figure—or $11.6 billion—is tied to national parks, America’s sportsmen and women remain concerned about the backlogs at the Bureau of Land Management and the National Wildlife Refuge System, which have a combined backlog of $2.2 billion. Meanwhile, at the Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Forest Service has a backlog totaling more than $5 billion, an issue further exacerbated by the practice of “fire borrowing” before this fix.

Combined, these agencies manage public lands that provide some of the best hunting and fishing opportunities in the country. But nothing is more frustrating than having to ground-truth every route to make sure they are accessible as presented on a map. Especially in today’s world, when time is precious and most people don’t have extra days to spare.

Loss of access is often cited as the number-one reason hunters quit the sport. With hunting numbers already in decline, creating a ripple that reduces funding for state wildlife conservation, we can ill-afford to let a backlog of repairs put negative pressure on hunter retention and recruitment.

Finding a Solution

The deferred maintenance backlog across federal agencies and Americans’ access to public lands appears to be top-of-mind for the administration. In his recent infrastructure proposal, President Trump offered a new funding stream to address the maintenance backlog on lands managed by the Interior Department, including our nation’s parks and wildlife refuges. And Secretary Zinke has been outspoken about the maintenance backlog issue, even as he has urged agency staff through two Secretarial Orders to prioritize public access to outdoor recreation like hunting and fishing.

Creating a solution will be critical, but it can’t come at the cost of other important conservation programs. While the TRCP supports initiatives to address the significant maintenance backlog on our nation’s public lands, we are opposed to efforts to restructure programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund with an aim of shifting funding from one important need to another.

Instead, we need an all-of-the-above strategy: Reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund to continue creating access where there is none, recognize that the maintenance backlog issue is meaningful for more than just national park visitors, and identify new funding sources to deal with it.

We urge Congress and the administration to work together and find a bipartisan solution to address the maintenance backlogs on BLM lands, wildlife refuges, and national forests—in addition to a critical fix for our national parks. A true solution will also uphold the integrity and purpose of other critical public lands programs, like LWCF—it won’t rob Peter to pay Paul.

The future of our access and outdoor traditions depends on it. If you agree, sign the Sportsmen’s Country petition now.

John Cornell

March 20, 2018

Local Sportsmen Rebuilt the Gateway to 40,000 Acres of Public Hunting Land

Members of a local sportsmen’s group helped to open up 40,000 acres of state trust land in New Mexico by providing materials, volunteers, and a little elbow grease

In central New Mexico, 40,000 acres of state-owned public hunting land can be found beyond a two-track road that, until recently, dead-ended at a fence. This state trust land—home to mule deer, cougars, oryxes, pronghorns and more—is surrounded by private land, and was all but inaccessible after a gate between a ranch and state trust lands was removed and fenced over.

For a long time, all we could do was point to this spot on a map and wish we could get there. Until a group of sportsmen and women joined state officials to create a DIY solution.

A Little Background on State Trust Land

There are state trust lands in 32 of New Mexico’s 33 counties. When New Mexico became a state, it was stipulated that such lands, totaling 13.4 million acres, were to be held in trust for the benefit of public schools, universities, and other beneficiary institutions. And each acre of land is designated to a specific beneficiary.

The New Mexico Commissioner of Public Lands, an elected official, is charged with generating and optimizing revenue from state trust lands to support public education and other institutions, while simultaneously working to protect, conserve, and maintain these lands for future generations. The State Land Office leases lands for grazing, agriculture, commercial use, renewable energy, oil and gas drilling, mining, and other surface and subsurface activities.

Because hunting, fishing, and trapping are key tools of fish and wildlife management, sportsmen and women are granted access to most state trust lands through easements purchased by the New Mexico Game Commission. But being allowed to hunt and fish on public land is only meaningful if we can access it.

Recently, the Commissioner of Public Lands ordered that the State Land Office make it a priority to identify and restore vehicular access to New Mexico state trust lands within the Chupadera Mesa Area, which are largely surrounded by private property and have historically been inaccessible to public land hunters. One particular pinch point was created when a gate between state trust lands and a ranch was removed, and the only entry point large enough for vehicular access was fenced over.

The project improved hunter access in Unit 18, and the State Land Office’s maps will be updated on April 1. Click here to learn more.
Collaboration Was the Key

The State Land Office first approached the Doña Ana County Associated Sportsmen about the project in October 2017. Our group has forged positive relationships with government agencies and helped with hundreds of volunteer projects since the organization was founded in the early 1970s. They appealed to the club to purchase materials and provide volunteers to help complete construction of a gate that would reestablish opportunities to hunt and trap in the state land beyond the ranch.

So, in December, I went along with other members of DACAS, our families, and representatives of the State Land Office and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to get the job done. Fortunately, DACAS was left a generous endowment by one of its founding members to be used for scholarships in the Wildlife Department of New Mexico State University and to benefit future hunting, fishing, and trapping anywhere in New Mexico. This project was a perfect place to invest these funds to help make a difference. It took two months to coordinate volunteers and materials and three days to construct and finish the gate. And when we were done with our part, we all gathered to fire up the disco for an elk burrito lunch and stories of past hunts. A weekend afternoon is a small price to pay for access to 40,000 acres that will allow the next generation of sportsmen and women to have their own stories to tell.

Find Your Gateway to Conservation

It seems that when local hunters and anglers get involved and put our weight behind a solution, success is nearly always possible. The Chupadera Mesa Hunter Access Project has successfully enhanced hunting opportunities in eastern Socorro County, and I couldn’t be more proud of what our crew accomplished. But I know that a project of this scale may seem daunting to others out there, even those who truly want to make a difference.

Start small. As access to our public lands becomes increasingly pressured across the West, it is even more critical that we be willing partners with our state and federal agencies to ensure that we have quality places to hunt, fish, and trap for the foreseeable future. But we should keep an eye on the shots being called—locally and nationally.

Sign up for our updates, and we’ll let you know how to get engaged in a meaningful way. Then, sign the Sportsmen’s Country petition to let lawmakers know that we won’t take access promises over balanced management of our best fish and wildlife resources.

 

Chris Macaluso

March 7, 2018

Finally, Federal Fisheries Management for Us

The Modern Fish Act would allow updated management approaches that acknowledge the difference between recreational and commercial fisheries, and it’s nearing the finish line

Saltwater anglers celebrate this time of year, knowing that the bulk of winter has passed and warmer temperatures, calmer seas, and lines stretched by sportfish of all sorts are likely just a few weeks away.

But the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee recently gave anglers another reason to be optimistic about March’s arrival—last week, they approved the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017, also known as the Modern Fish Act, by a wide margin. A bipartisan contingent of 22 out of the 27 committee members voted to approve the bill and advance it to the Senate floor.

This is great news for America’s anglers, because the bill contains a host of provisions aimed at improving federal management of recreational fishing, specifically by acknowledging in federal law—finally—that recreational and commercial fishing have fundamentally different approaches and management should be “adapted to the characteristics of each sector.”

Modernizing Management for Better Fishing

The Modern Fish Act allows regional fisheries management councils to maintain conservation measures and explore approaches that update management to better serve anglers. This includes strategies that have been very successfully used by state agencies to manage coastal and inland fish species.

The bill also calls for NOAA to work with the National Academies of Sciences to examine and improve data collection programs for recreational fisheries. More state-collected stock assessment and recreational harvest data could be used by federal managers under the Modern Fish Act, as well. More precise harvest data could result in longer, more stable recreational seasons.

Image courtesy of J.B.Pribanic.

Under the bill, NOAA will need to take a hard look at commercial and recreational fishing allocations in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic to determine if current allocations are based in the best available data and meet the economic and cultural needs of the entire fishery—not simply the commercial side. This could mean more fish allocated to recreational or commercial harvest, depending on how conditions have changed, but the updates are critical. Many current allocations are based in information from three decades ago or more and have not been examined with an eye toward meeting both sectors’ needs.

Finally, the Modern Fish Act calls for a thorough examination of the social and economic impacts of implementing additional limited-access privilege programs, also known as individual fishing quota systems, in fisheries shared by commercial and recreational users. While individual fishing quotas have worked well in the Alaskan crab and Pollock fisheries, which are entirely commercial, they aren’t suited for recreational fisheries where the fish must continue to support every American’s opportunity to fish.

Sportsmen would never suggest that private companies and individuals own ducks, deer, or largemouth bass—and private ownership of saltwater sportfish should not be tolerated either.

Widespread Agreement

It is important to note that this bill has garnered broad bipartisan support since being introduced by Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker and Florida Democrat Bill Nelson last July. Twelve co-sponsors have added their names to the bill over the last eight months, split almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans.

Help also came from both Republican and Democratic staff on the committee, who worked extensively with recreational fishing conservation groups over the last year or more to ensure that the bill accomplishes the targeted fixes to federal law that anglers are seeking, while making sure that resource conservation isn’t compromised. “This is the Commerce Committee at its best,” said Wicker after the February 28 committee hearing.

Since the bill was first introduced, the TRCP and a coalition of partner and non-partner groups—including the American Sportfishing Association, Coastal Conservation Association, Center for Sportfishing Policy, National Marine Manufacturers Association, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, Yamaha Marine Group, and others—have worked tirelessly with staff from Senate offices on both sides of the aisle to address concerns and make reasonable amendments to the bill. Many concessions were made in the last 10 months to bring the Commerce Committee a bill that is a source of pride for Republicans and Democrats, and, more importantly, the sportsmen and women who have always been leaders in resource conservation.

“The Modern Fish Act represents five years’ worth of input from our community and will increase the level of trust between America’s 11 million saltwater anglers and federal fisheries managers,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We’re extremely encouraged to see these updated management approaches tailored to meet the unique needs of recreational fishing, rather than forcing recreational seasons into a management scheme designed for commercial fisheries.”

Photo courtesy of Pete Markham.

Certainly, when congressional staff is helping to write legislation with cooperation from recreational angling conservation groups, and both Republicans and Democrats are willing to compromise to improve legislation, it represents the best of our country’s lawmaking process. Hopefully we can expect to see this level of agreement and cooperation extended to other efforts to improve law and policy.

No Time to Lose

But even a popular bill isn’t necessarily a done deal—there are many demands competing for our lawmakers’ attentions, and we need to continue to engage Senate and House members to move the Modern Fish Act to passage as soon as possible. Saltwater angling and the management of our most important fisheries are closer than ever to getting well-deserved recognition from the federal government.

We can’t let another Congress go by without addressing the very real differences between recreational and commercial fishing—or improving fisheries management to rebuild trust between anglers and federal fisheries managers.

 

 

Joel Webster

February 27, 2018

Cuts to LWCF Could Undermine Zinke’s Public Lands Access Agenda

Proposed cuts to land acquisition funding would prevent agencies from enhancing public hunting and fishing access—the most widely celebrated part of DOI’s public lands agenda

Ryan Zinke completes his first year in office as Secretary of the Interior this week, on the anniversary of his March 1, 2017 confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

I think everyone can agree that a lot has changed in this time. While some actions have been met with scrutiny, Secretary Zinke has also initiated processes that are laudable: These include directing public land management agencies to increase public access through Secretarial Order 3356 and steps taken to protect big game migration corridors through Secretarial Order 3362.

The process to identify and conserve migration corridors appears to be off to a good start, but there is a real risk that the agency’s celebrated access directives could fall by the wayside unless Zinke works with Congress to support funding for land acquisition in the federal budget. Here’s why.

Strategic Acquisition Opens Access

Back in September, Secretary Zinke directed the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to produce plans to expand access for hunting and fishing AND identify lands where access is currently limited. This might include areas that are currently impractical or impossible to access via public roads or trails, but where there may be an opportunity to gain access through an easement, right-of-way, or land acquisition. The agencies were asked to provide a report to the Deputy Secretary of the Interior detailing such lands.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is the federal program that funds nearly all public land acquisition and easement projects to open public access. Enacted in 1965, the LWCF is America’s premier conservation and recreation program. It has helped to conserve parks, forests, shorelines, farms, ranches, refuges, and trails in nearly every state and county in the U.S. It doesn’t cost taxpayers a cent—LWCF helps invest in America’s public lands using a small portion of federal offshore oil and gas drilling fees.

But if this program is allowed to lapse or if it doesn’t receive strong funding, the Department of the Interior would not be able to expand public access to public lands in most circumstances.

Possible Effects of Shrinking or Raiding the Fund

While Secretary Zinke has long expressed support for the LWCF, President Trump’s 2019 budget has nearly zeroed out the Department of the Interior’s proposed LWCF budget from $154 million in 2018 to eight million dollars in 2019. If enacted, this drastic reduction in funding for the Department’s would make it difficult, if not impossible for the agency to achieve the expanded access goals created by Secretary Zinke just last fall. (More on the president’s budget and infrastructure proposals here.)

Loss of access is commonly cited as the number one reason people stop hunting, and millions of acres of BLM public lands are currently landlocked across the West, specifically in places like eastern Montana, southwest Oregon, and northeast Nevada. Secretary Zinke has an opportunity to leave a positive legacy for public access by helping to open many of these lands to the public, and the sporting community is ready to be a partner in this effort. But we can’t get it done without funding.

 

Top photo courtesy of Bob Wick/BLM via flickr.  

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