Hunters must still wait two months to learn what ranches and farms will join the Montana block management network, but its managers are already responding to kinks in the relationship.
“As a program, we’re adjusting to a reduced amount of funding and a lot of uncertainty,” said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks landowner/sportsmen relations coordinator Alan Charles. “We aren’t seeing any expansion of the program. We’re just trying to hang on.”
Last week, the Bozeman-based Rural Landscape Institute launched an online survey to learn what people like and dislike about the program. The answers might show why block management has hit a rough spot, according to institute director Matt Bitz.
“We’re interested because that hunter-landowner relationship has become a bit more confrontational,” Bitz said. “Block management provides a place where both those groups come together. But if you look at the past legislative session, there were some pretty heated debates at the Capitol. That’s a really good barometer that this is a tense relationship.”
A 2010 voter-passed initiative was supposed to bring more money to block management and encourage greater private land access by changing the way nonresident hunters could receive Montana hunting licenses. But that hasn’t worked quite as planned, Charles said. The last two years of nonresident license offerings have undersold, leaving block management with more interested landowners than money to operate.
The program has also served as a flash point for different disputes, Charles said.
“A lot of issues are polarizing the state – things like wolf and bison management that are not related to access,” he said. “But that affects relations between FWP, landowners and hunters. There’s a lot of frustration.”
Last year, FWP had about 1,300 landowners providing 8.5 million acres of huntable private land through block management. The offerings range from huge blocks of Plum Creek Timber Co. and Nature Conservancy property with unrestricted access to small pastures whose owners allow one hunting party a week.
Landowners get paid according to the number of hunter-days their properties receive. Payments range up to $12,000 a year, although the average is $3,500. FWP also contributes signing, fencing, patrol monitors and other management help to participants.
In return, hunters get access to many prime drainages, river bottoms and corridors to public land otherwise off limits. That helps FWP manage deer and elk populations that take a toll on landowners’ hay supplies and fencing.
The 2012 block management guide comes out Aug. 15. The most restricted areas start taking reservations Aug. 22. The Region 2 area around Missoula had 135 landowner participants providing about 584,000 acres last year.
Bitz said the Rural Landscape survey hopes to get at what makes a good or bad block management experience, for either hunters or landowners. The surveys are separate from those produced by FWP.
On a different tack, FWP has launched its own online Landowner Stewardship Project. The training program functions as a “hunter-ed refresher course,” Charles said. It takes roughly three hours to complete all the survey questions, view the videos and write responses. The 14 topic areas include lessons in livestock activity, vehicle use, hunting with dogs, traveling between public and private land, and weed control.
The program allows participants up to six months to finish, saving work in increments. Participants get a free cap and bumper sticker in addition to a certificate of completion at the end.
Charles said some block management landowners in the eastern part of the state have started requiring those certificates before they’ll let hunters on their property. While he initially worried an Internet-based course might only reach the state’s younger hunters, that’s proven unfounded.
“We’ve got people 80 years old, going and completing this and asking for their cap and certificate,” Charles said. “They’re saying this is good reminder of basic hunter ethics.”
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney @missoulian.com.