In a restaurant, you look at a menu. On a hunting trip, you look at a map.
The guide to good eating in either case is only as useful as it is up to date. And for hunters this year, finding a good map can mean the difference between coming home with a trophy or a ticket.
It’s not a trivial matter. The fine for hunting big game on private land without permission is $135 for a first offense. Someone who’s flagrantly ignored gates, signs and fencing could be hit with a criminal trespass violation, where the fine starts at $500.
While many landowners are diligent about marking their property lines, they don’t bear the legal burden for knowing where the boundaries are, according to Fish, Wildlife and Parks warden captain Jeff Darrah. That’s the hunter’s job.
“It’s nice when it is marked, but you’ve got to know for sure,” Darrah said. “No law says a landowner has to mark his land to keep people off it.”
The need for good maps has escalated lately as Plum Creek Timber Co. and Stimson Lumber Co. have sold large blocks of their forest land. For decades, both companies allowed liberal use of their lands and roads during hunting season.
But Plum Creek is completing the divestiture of 310,000 acres in the western part of the state through the Montana Legacy Project, and has also sold thousands more acres privately. Stimson has also been selling large parcels on the private market.
“There are sales going on every day,” Darrah said. “And it does fall on the sportsman to try to figure that out. The best thing to do is to contact the company and say, ‘This is a section I’ve hunted for years, do you still own that?’ ”
The FWP Block Management Program coordinates access to private land for hunting. Each FWP office has free maps showing the location of block management sites and the rules for using them. Some are limited by reservation or registration, while others require entrance by certain gates or roads.
But even those maps aren’t always up to date. And they don’t offer much information about adjacent private land that isn’t in block management.
The Montana Cadastral Mapping Service offers free statewide property ownership information through the Internet. However, its browser can be difficult to use, and a recent attempt to get anything to work with either Internet Explorer or Firefox failed to produce a map.
Traditionalists and those who like to practice their orienteering still swear by paper maps. Especially where public land is concerned, the latest versions are reliable.
“On national forest lands, the best thing you can do is pick up a current Forest Service map,” said Kevin McCann at Rocky Mountain Maps and Guidebooks in Missoula. “But with some land changes we’ve had in the area, Plum Creek lands and so forth, it’s kind of difficult to get something on a paper map that’s gospel, so to speak.”
Rocky Mountain recently picked up the quadrangle map inventory of Missoula Blueprint Co., whose owner is retiring. While those are excellent for understanding terrain, they’re often several years out of date on land ownership.
The high-tech answer to the problem is a Global Positioning Satellite reader. Once prohibitively expensive, these hand-held devices now sell for $200 and up. At that price point, the gizmo can usually accept a localized map package from something like Montana Mapping and GIS.
The Missoula company has specialized in producing electronic map files that have annually updated property records, often with contact information to the landowner included. In addition to Montana, the company sells similar maps for 10 other Western and eight Midwestern states.
“That’s good for guys going across the state or going to different states who may have a limited amount of time,” said Montana Mapping business manager Rob Hart. “They can view land ownership before they step in the field. That can help cut off a couple hours or days of scouting.”
The maps can be downloaded to a computer, or loaded on a memory card and inserted in a GPS device. Hart said that way, someone can follow the directions in a car dashboard device to a trailhead, then pop the card into a handheld GPS for the groundwork.
Landowners and game wardens are also using the custom electronic maps. Game Warden Darrah said it makes it simple to settle disputes in the field about whether someone’s in a legal place or not.
“A lot of our guys are getting our chips updated next week,” he said. “It’s a very valuable tool when you’re walking close to a border, or trying to navigate through public land.”
While some people question whether reliance on electronic route-finding stunts traditional woodscraft, Darrah said he hasn’t seen an increase in people getting in trouble while depending on GPS. On the other hand, he said the detailed electronic maps often help hunters find new territory.
“Before I had one of these, I’d just take off walking, and might not pay attention to pertinent landmarks,” Darrah said. “But if you’re watching it all the time, you know where you are all the time. What it’s doing, is teaching people how to get to pieces of land they didn’t know how to get to before.”