State-Managed Hunting Access Programs
By George Bettas, Hunting & Conservation Editor
Western Hunter Magazine
Boone and Crockett Club’s Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Ranch (TRMR) is a 6,500-acre ranch lying on the east slope of the Rocky Mountains near Dupuyer, Montana. The TRMR has been enrolled in Montana’s Block Management Program for more than 30 years and continues to be an outstanding model for state-managed hunter access programs.
State-managed hunting access programs in the West grew from of the need to have a formal means of opening more private lands to public hunting, in order to address significant recent losses of public access. These losses are attributable to land ownership changes, leasing of ranches, and eroding hunter-landowner relationships.
Over the past two decades, many western states have implemented state-managed hunter access programs. Most include a means to compensate participating landowners, while also promoting positive hunter-landowner relations. Kansas, North Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kentucky, South Dakota, California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho all have hunter access programs.
Each state is different, but walk-in areas are widely used, and in most cases, the arrangement requires minimal hunter/landowner contact. There is also great variability in how these lands are administered and how hunting, wildlife habitat, and wildlife are managed.
In this article, we’ll focus primarily on Montana. It was an early leader and is the largest such program. Idaho and Wyoming will also be discussed because of unique aspects of these two states. Finally, I’ll provide insights on how to find the quality that most DIY hunters are looking for in hunting opportunities.
The Boone and Crockett Experience
Early forms of Montana’s Block Management program were implemented in the 1970s. I became acquainted with it soon after I became a Boone and Crockett Club Regular Member in 1989. The Club had purchased the Triple Divide Ranch in 1986 and was crafting its vision for the newly named Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Ranch (TRMR), including demonstrating that a viable cattle operation could also include habitat for wildlife, especially big game.
A key element in the original TRMR vision was to provide public hunting opportunities. An important part of the vision included a policy that Club Members could not hunt on the ranch - key in demonstrating the Club’s neighborly cooperation goals vs. a private hunting club.
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By 1988, the Club was cooperating with Gary Olson, the local Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist in several habitat and deer/elk collaring projects. The next year the Club hired Bobby Peebles as Ranch Manager. With a family of long-time ranchers in the area, Bobby was familiar with the challenges of raising cattle among the wildlife on the Rocky Mountain Front. He was also keenly aware of the importance of quality wildlife habitat and hunter/wildlife management systems.
Gary and Bobby worked well in a collaborative partnership that was good for the ranch and wildlife. They introduced the Club’s leadership to FWP’s Block Management program. The program paid a small sum for public access, but more important, it provided a means of managing hunter access. It was an excellent fit with the Club’s goals for the TRMR.
Bobby embraced the program and worked with FWP and the Club’s Ranch Committee to establish basic ranch rules and program guidelines. That game management unit was known to winter 400 mule deer that migrated in from the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Although there was an elk herd that wintered there, the elk numbers were quite small in those days compared to mule deer.
Local ranchers described deer herds trailing out of “The Bob” when the winter storms began in November as being in the hundreds, trailing one behind the other “like bands of sheep.” This usually happened during hunting season (Montana’s big game seasons go through Thanksgiving weekend). This made the bucks extremely vulnerable in a “firing line” situation.
Few neighboring ranches allowed public hunting, which in turn concentrated hunters in the few areas where public access to public lands existed. The Club decided that if hunting was to be permitted on the TRMR, it was important to create a hunting situation consistent with the Club’s principles of fair chase. In order to do this, it was necessary to close a road with no perfected access which public hunters had informally used to access national forest and wilderness.
Working with the Block Management Program, three miles of private access road was kept open through the ranch, but was closed to vehicular access 2-½ miles short of the wilderness boundary during hunting season and winter to prevent damage to the two-track road, provide wildlife security, and facilitate a hunting situation consistent with B&C’s fair chase principles.
Parking areas were provided, two of which allowed for overnight camping on the ranch. “Walk-in only” access to the Forest and The Bob was allowed from the parking/camping area where vehicular access terminated.
The Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Ranch Block Management area in central Montana.
The “walk-in” access on the TRMR and the public land access corridor/parking/camping areas all work together. This collaborative partnership between B&C and Montana FWP is an important example of how state agencies can work with landowners in creating quality situations for landowners, hunters, and wildlife.
Montana FWP Block Management rules paid landowners based upon hunter days, encouraging landowners to allow the maximum number of hunters on the property during the season. However, the Club was interested in providing a quality hunting experience, which meant that a limited number of hunters would be allowed each day, and a limited quota of mule deer would be harvested annually.
The ranch was divided into three hunting areas. Each area was limited to one hunting party of up to three hunters per day. Reservations could be made up to three days in advance of the hunting season by calling the ranch manager.
The Club’s establishment of walk-in-only access, coupled with Montana FWP implementing a season restriction - closing the mule deer season on private lands in the unit after the second week of the five-week season - significantly enhanced hunting in the area. Only a limited number of mule deer buck permits are drawn for hunting private land in the unit (including the TRMR) after the second week of the season, facilitating the escapement of a significant number of mature bucks, which by the third week of the season have migrated out of The Bob. These changes created significant opportunities for DIY hunters to harvest mature bucks on the ranch as well as the public lands beyond the ranch.
Over the years, ranch rules have evolved, with 2017 rules reflecting the Club’s vision for a high-quality hunting experience, significant wildlife populations, and quality habitat. Now, many different species of wildlife are present including grizzlies, wolves, mountain lions, mule deer, whitetail, and elk. At least four sow grizzlies make the TRMR their home.
Grizzly bears are commonly found on the TRMR and adjacent public lands. Photo by Luke Coccoli.
Current ranch rules are exemplary: 1) provide for two parties of 1-3 hunters each on the ranch each day; 2) a safety zone; 3) walk-in hunting only; 4) certified weed-free hay requirement for hunters’ livestock; 5) a limited harvest of three buck deer per week; 6) a limit of five special-permit mule deer hunters per year; 7) recording of harvest and access numbers; 8) unlimited public access to USFS and Bob Marshall Wilderness lands via ranch access. With the huge growth in the elk population, the TRMR encourages more elk hunters to hunt on the ranch.
With its access corridor to public lands, high-quality wildlife habitat, and public hunting facilitated by Block Management, the TRMR has become the example of high-quality public hunting available through state-managed private land hunting access programs.
For the public hunter, access to the Rocky Mountain Front has always been limited, with few ranches allowing any hunting. As area ranchers have dealt with the issues of succession, more of these ranches have been sold to “amenity” buyers that don’t allow hunting.
With its access corridor to public lands and public hunting facilitated by Block Management for more than 30 years, the TRMR is a unique public hunting opportunity. From its simple beginnings, it quickly has become the exmple of how high-quality public hunting access can be provided through state-managed hunter access programs.
With the significant growth in elk numbers, the TRMR specifically seeks elk hunters to hunt the ranch and the nearby wilderness.
1986 Changes in Montana’s Block Management Program
After more than a decade of regional Block Management programs, Montana’s statewide program was created in 1985 in response to growing landowner concerns about hunter numbers, land damage, and time landowners spent dealing with hunters.
The 1986 Montana legislature created the enhanced BM program, the goal of which was to open more private land to free public hunting. A formal program, along with the infusion of money for funding, increased landowner participation and the amount of land enrolled by about 60%.
In 1995, Block Management was changed again when the basic elements of the enhanced program were developed by a Citizen’s Advisory Committee (Private Lands Public Wildlife, PLPW) appointed by the Governor. PLPW was comprised of landowners, sportsmen, and outfitters in effort to create a collaborative problem-solving group that would improve landowner-sportsmen relations and help outfitters stabilize their industry and improve their image throughout the state.
Over time, funding has been increased via a new hunting access fee, a portion of the nonresident upland bird license, weed management payments, a percentage of Montana’s Super Tag lottery, Pittman-Robertson dollars, and since 2011, 25% of the sales of nonresident big game licenses. Today, Montana’s Block Management budget exceeds $6.5M, the largest of its kind in the West.
Hunter Access vs. Landowner Impacts
Although the Block Management Program is listed under the overall title of Hunting Access, it’s much more about appeasing landowners who allow some public hunting on their lands.
The key underlying concept is that it isn’t an “access payment.” Instead, it’s a payment intended to pay landowners for adverse impacts caused by hunters who have free hunting on their lands. Impacts include the cost of repairing road damage, controlling weeds spread on ranches by hunters, the inconvenience of dealing with hunters, the risk of litigation related to hunters being injured on the property, livestock lost due to hunters, and crop damage from big game. Paying landowners for the impacts of public hunters seems to be counter to providing access for ethical, responsible public hunters.
Opportunity vs. Quality
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks views Montana as an opportunity state. That translates into five-week rifle seasons, which conclude the weekend after Thanksgiving. This happens seemingly without regard to the impacts this timing has with the overharvest of migrating big game animals or the significant impact that hunting mule deer bucks in the rut has on the herd composition.
The “opportunity model” applies to Montana’s Block Management program as well. What was started with a lot of variability and options for quality has become a huge bureaucratic program, with a lot of funding that is based upon creating maximum opportunity for landowners to make money and for hunters to go hunting.
Creating a Block Management program akin to the program at the Boone and Crockett Ranch is almost an enigma considering the opportunity paradigm. The quality most of today’s DIY hunters seek throughout the West is almost the antithesis of what the Montana FWP administration has created in its state-managed public hunting access program.
Boots on the Ground Payments
The “opportunity” concept translates to the way in which landowners are paid for hunter access in Montana. More hunters and the least restrictions equate to the largest payments.
All landowners receive an equal Basic Enrollment Payment computed at an amount per hunter day. The longer the property is open to hunting during the season, the more the payment. Restrictions on species and gender of the game result in payment reductions.
Although the original Block Management program provided incentives for cooperators to provide access to public lands either contained within or adjacent to ranch boundaries, Montana FWP’s private property rights bias has prevailed and BM cooperators have no obligation to allow access to these public lands.
Montana’s BMA’s: Type I and Type II
Montana’s BMA’s vary widely because of the seven different regions administering the programs, but all can be placed into two general classifications: Type I and Type II. Type I provides for hunters to administer their own permission by using daily sign-in boxes, or includes areas where no permission is required.
Typically, Type I BMA’s don’t limit hunter numbers. Type II BMAs are administered by landowners or FWP employees that grant permission to hunters. Typically, Type II BMAs limit hunter numbers, require reservations, or assign designated hunting areas.
Type I BMA’s - with no limits on hunters, species, or general length of time the property is open for access during hunting season - comprise the majority of acreages enrolled in the BMA system. As a result, after the first few days, most of the game is either killed or run off the property. Hunters drive from one Type I property to another looking for a place to “take a walk with their gun” as one landowner described to me.
Type II areas require some sort of landowner permission or reservation. In theory, the more steps required to obtain permission, the higher quality hunting experience in terms of overcrowding, opportunities to find game, etc.
These areas may provide more reasonable opportunity to find game, but are often difficult to obtain permission or a reservation. Montana has seven different administrative regions, each with its own rules.
In many cases, the hunter has to dial the landowner’s number countless times to get a call through during a two-hour call-in slot for reservations. Dialing the phone for hours and not getting through is common. Many hunters feel it’s an archaic practice.
Also, what many don’t realize is that even though the system appears fair, it is indeed not fair. Landowners are free to pick and choose the hunters to whom they give (or not give) reservations. “Friends and Family” lists are common, with these individuals being given permission well before the call-in periods begin.
As one senior FWP administrator told me in defense of landowner screening in Montana’s “Devil’s Kitchen” region known for its abundance of elk: “You know, the average hunters just can’t kill the numbers of elk the landowner wants killed on his ranch. He has to screen out the hunters who can kill elk.” Although this is the case, when this fact is not revealed in FWP’s BMA publications, it’s simply not fair to anyone interested in hunting the BMA.
Some Type II properties require the hunter to go to the landowner’s residence to obtain permission. In some cases, phone numbers aren’t listed and one can spend a long time attempting to contact a landowner for permission.
Other Type II BMA’s are administered through a “telephone bank” provided by FWP, where contractors answer phones and take reservations. Still other Type II BMA’s require the hunters to show up at a local grange hall the Friday before hunting for a drawing. Potential hunters must arrive by a certain time and be present to be drawn.
Making Sense Out of Montana’s BMA’s
The most significant challenges to hunters using Block Management begin with the sheer number of BMAs available, especially in eastern Montana. Next is that each of the seven regions administer their BMA’s differently. Next is that FWP has refused to make its database anything close to user-friendly. It’s so slanted to the landowners that unless you know a landowner or spend the time to drive all over Montana scoping out BMA’s, finding a BMA with reasonable quality is nearly impossible.
One time I counted almost 35 different ways for a hunter to contact a landowner. Montana provides no way to sort BMA’s for info - no records of harvest, no info on habitat quality or type. Their built-in bias of the Type II landowner screening and archaic telephone contact system add up to an almost impossible task.
With so many millions of acres of BMAs statewide, FWP staff can’t inspect properties regularly. Maps aren’t always current and some BMA’s may be change in quality due to farming practices, etc.
Finally, the absolute refusal of FWP to put any of the BMA reservation information or the reservation process online is confirmation that Montana wants opportunity for the “average” hunter, many who do little planning and choose to drive around the state looking for BMA’s to hunt.
Also, Montana disables all of the links to its Block Management maps and landowner info after hunting season, making them inaccessible to the individual who wants to do any hunt planning between December 1 and about August 1 annually.
Finding the Needle in an 8-Million-Acre Haystack
Montana’s BMA program has a lot of issues, but there are a few tips for the DIY hunter to consider.
Download the 120-Page Block Management Access Guide any Block Management info you may need from the FWP website between the time the links are activated and the first of December. Ranch rules and maps have key info you’ll need. Regional BMA maps for the regions you’re interested in are critical.
Due to Montana FWP’s resistance to make major website enhancements, Scott Bischke and Kate Gibson at MountainWorks, Inc. in Bozeman (www.emountainworks.com) have created a Montana Hunting Access smartphone app that has every document for every BMA included! You don’t need to be connected via WiFi or cell to use the app, which works with your mobile device’s GPS via a mapping interface so you can pinpoint yourself relative to property boundaries.
MountainWorks, Inc. has created a Montana Hunting Access smartphone app that has every document for every BMA in Montana included! It’s a great example of what the visionary private sector can accomplish when a state agency is slow to embrace change.
Determine what area you’d like to hunt and then do your research on the quality of what’s being harvested there. The normal “search” elements in doing this are the same on private lands as they are on public lands. Some areas produce better animals than others.
When you’ve identified the general area, hone in on specific game units. Some states have detailed harvest info, but such info is limited in Montana. Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young records are excellent sources to consider.
Hunter management is essential to quality of hunting experience and opportunity to harvest a quality animal.
One can manually develop a system to match BMA’s with a hunter management system in place, especially limited entry hunting units for mule deer, elk, pronghorn, etc. Once drawn in such an area, BMA hunting experiences can be excellent. Some landowners in these areas have developed their own websites for managing and administering hunter reservations. Check these websites and call the landowner to learn about their property. Other landowners have ranch rules that speak to quality animals. These landowners understand quality and cater to the hunter who desires the same.
This bull elk, scoring 400 B&C, was taken on a Montana BMA property in a limited entry area. Drawing a limited entry tag dramatically increases the opportunity for a DIY hunter to find a quality BMA.
Quality habitat is critical. Google Earth will give you some indication of habitat, but in most cases, it’s necessary to talk directly with the landowner or Block Management coordinator for specifics.
Many regional BMA Block Management Coordinators can be helpful. Once you’ve narrowed your search, call them. Describe what kind of an experience you’re seeking and ask for suggestions. These calls are best made after hunting season when administrators have more time for you.
With more than $6.5 million in funding and 7 million acres enrolled, one would think that a visionary leader in the future could solve the myriad of problems facing Montana’s hunter access program. Meanwhile, if such leadership doesn’t emerge, Montana will continue to lose access to private lands, and continue to do as it always has and have what it has had for 20-plus years, allowing the bureaucracy to meander on its chosen path to where, anyone knows.
Idaho’s Access Yes: Small, but Mighty
Idaho has one of the smallest private land access programs, but from the start, I’ve been impressed by what Idaho has done with just a million acres in its “Access Yes!” program. This program was designed to improve sportsman access to private lands, and provide access to public ground through private lands, by providing compensation to landowners who provide access.
Idaho’s program is funded by voluntary donations and from revenue generated via their Super Hunt drawing. If one looks at the properties included, there are a lot of interesting and unique properties.
Since providing access to public lands via the Access Yes program is a primary consideration for enrollment, there are some excellent “keystone” properties that provide great access to state and federal lands. In some cases, the Forest Service or the county has improved roads to further enhance the access provided through private lands. Idaho’s website is excellent as well. Properties are listed and maps are just a click away.
Access Yes properties are listed in an easy to read web page which summarizes and describes the properties and is linked to individual property pages which describe the property in detail, provide landowner contact info, access restrictions, hunting and fishing opportunities. The descriptions are excellent and detail each species available with links to Idaho Fish and Game rules, etc. The database is searchable and has links to Idaho’s Hunt Planner, which includes harvest statistics for the hunting unit, drawing odds, downloadable data, and real-time hunter reports.
Idaho’s maps are interactive, enabling the user to change the base map, overlays, and print maps. The maps can also be downloaded as KMZ files for GPS, phone, or Google Earth.
Overall, Idaho has done an outstanding job of creating a user-friendly and excellent Access Yes program, both online and on the ground.
Wyoming’s Access Yes, the Crown Jewel
In about 1997, Kaush Arha, a recent University of Montana PhD and Boone and Crockett Club Fellow, moved to Wyoming to serve as Wyoming Game and Fish’s private land/public wildlife coordinator. His appointment was in response to a survey of Wyoming residents in which 85 percent indicated that public access was getting worse. In Wyoming, over 50% of wildlife habitat is on private lands, and deeply held values related to private property rights and public ownership of wildlife had led to a contentious issue.
Kaush was charged with meeting with sportsmen, landowners, and professionals from various state agencies to assess the problem and develop proposed solutions. He had studied the access issue in the West prior to coming to Wyoming, and understood that one of the most serious problems is the conservation and protection of critical wildlife habitat on private agricultural lands.
After a rocky start, a permanent Public Lands Private Wildlife program was initiated in 2001. After a great deal of work, a shared use vision for managing the public’s wildlife on private lands emerged. With leadership from G&F, sportsmen, and the agricultural community, the program has become a flagship state-managed hunter access program.
In 2016, Wyoming’s Access Yes provided access to 1,758,632 acres of enrolled private and state lands; 1,027,077 of public lands; and provided additional access to 199,813 acres of public lands that wouldn’t have been accessible without the program.
Today, Wyoming’s Access Yes has three programs that help make private land available for public hunting.
Hunter Management Program
Through this program, WGFD has entered into agreements with landowners to provide access for hunters in Hunter Management Areas (HMA’s). HMA’s are ranch land that is open for hunting on private land only, or a combination of private, federal, and state land that lies within a ranch’s boundaries. HMAs are open via previously issued permission slips/reservations only for certain species and during specific time periods.
In order to hunt in an HMA, one must have a printed permission slip from WGFD for specific days to hunt. Wyoming’s website has hunters provide license info, and make, model, and license number of the vehicle they’ll be using. Hunters are issued an access slip online, provided with a map of ranch boundaries, ranch rules, area rules, and a vehicle decal identifying that permission has been received. Landowners receive lists of the hunters’ names, license info, and vehicle info.
Game wardens have access to the same data, as well as other info. Additionally, signs are posted marking the boundaries of the hunter management areas.
Wyoming’s Access Yes Hunter Management Areas provide good opportunities for DIY hunters interested in a quality hunt.
Randy Newberg has used Wyoming’s HMA program for a number of years, harvesting many great bull elk.
Walk-In Area Hunting Program
Wyoming’s Walk-In Areas (WIAs) allow access for hunting on foot only. Walk-in hunting areas are parcels of land open to anyone who has a valid hunting license; no permission slip is required. These areas are usually smaller than HMAs, and landowners determine which species can be hunted and when access will be granted.
Hunter/Landowner Assistance Program
This is an excellent program for landowners who don’t want to participate in the Hunter Management Program or the Walk-In Area Hunting Program, but want to allow a limited number of hunters on their land to help control wildlife populations, decrease agricultural damage, etc.
Landowners participating in this program are listed by region on the WGFD’s Private Lands Public Wildlife Access Program website. Hunters contact landowners directly and may be required to pay a fee.
Wyoming’s Access Yes program is primarily funded through direct and other donations (approximately 80%). Additional funding comes from annual and lifetime conservation stamps and draw applications.
Wyoming’s website contains a wealth of useful planning info for the DIY hunter. Research into big game statistics and harvest reports is a critical starting point. Once the hunter obtains a Wyoming license, online property research and applications are easily accommodated. Wyoming’s HMA’s have a great quality, especially when for elk hunting. The Walk-In areas offer less quality, but can be used as a backup plan. The hunter assistance program deserves looking into as well.
Importance of Private Lands in the Future
Private lands are the key to the future of wildlife in the U.S. The increasing recognition and appreciation of the values and contributions of private landowners to wildlife values and our human enjoyment of that wildlife produces good results for wildlife and hunters.
State-managed hunter access programs are one of the keys to motivate landowners to be active and willing participants in providing wildlife habitat and access to that wildlife. Within this paradigm lies the future of wildlife in the United States.
George Bettas, Hunting & Conservation Editor
Western Hunter Magazine