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Hunters, land owners and public land in Montana: A changing relationship

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(Photo courtesy of Haak Johnson/Seacat Creative)

Hunting is increasing in Montana, which means state wildlife officials and hunters alike are searching for new ways to increase land access without trampling land owners' rights.

Hunters can create tension by assuming they can access private land the day of the hunt without first developing a relationship with the land owner, said Greg Lemon, spokesman for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. He added that unethical hunters and land owners unwilling to work with hunters can create conflict as well.

Hunters must take time to lend a hand on private property throughout the year, he said, helping with fencing or other manual chores to gain access to prime territory come hunting season. The federal government also offers monetary incentives, like the block management program, to land owners to help avoid unnecessary tension, according to Lemon.

Lemon also emphasized the relationship between hunters and land owners remains positive. Most land owners understand the need for wildlife population management and most hunters understand they must behave appropriately when hunting private property, he said.

In recent years, hunters have been able to hunt public land more efficiently, circumventing the necessity of working with land owners and the tension that may come with it, Lemon said.

GPS chips and smartphones give hunters the ability to navigate the geography of public land in real time, and hunters know they are not trespassing in the field, according to Haak Johnson of Seacat Creative.

Better outdoor gear including ultralight equipment, mountaineering boots and improved backpack systems allow hunters to pack harvested animals out of the bush with no need for vehicles and roads, which are common on private land hunts, Johnson said.

(Photo courtesy of Haak Johnson/Seacat Creative)

Companies like Seacat Creative use photography and videography to communicate the beauty of Montana back country. By portraying the romantic struggle of public land hunting, hunters are realizing anyone can hunt public land with the right tools and know-how, said Johnson.

Nonprofits have joined the public land movement as well. Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA) fights to protect public land from threats facing the immense asset.  The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, similar to the BHA, is another organization working to advocate for public land conservation.

Due to awareness raised by companies and nonprofits, hunters are realizing dedication and resourcefulness offer the same or better hunting opportunities on public land than those on private, Johnson said.

But it's not just affordability that draws hunters to public land. 

(Photo courtesy of Haak Johnson/Seacat Creative)

"Hunting is not killing. It's overcoming and struggling. Struggles are commonplace on public land hunts, and most hunters are attracted to that now," Johnson said. "Hunters are less apt to knocking on doors for private access nowadays, and more attracted to slogging out the miles and being successful after an arduous journey."

According to Johnson, hunters don't want easy. They want adventure in all its difficulty. Johnson said Tavis Molnar in the Seacat Creative film "Arctic Red" explained it best.

"Reading the last page and throwing a book away doesn't do the author any justice. This is what a hunt with a focus on a harvest is. Wilderness adventures are like reading a page at a time, and the ending [kill] is usually pretty good, but only because you've read the entire book."

Watch "Arctic Red" below:

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