For the past three years, the numbers of both hunters and harvested game animals have declined in Montana. State Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) officials are monitoring the figures and hope the mild autumns have been the major factor, but long-time hunters point to a variety of other more complex factors for the decline.
“It’s more a function of weather than anything else,” says FWP biologist John Firebaugh of Missoula. “For the past three years the snow never came until the last weekend of the season.”
“It’s not the weather,” counters 62-year-old Mike Dey of Missoula, who has been hunting for the past 50 years. “It’s a combination of things: regulations that are hard to understand, lack of access, higher costs and a real war on teenagers who want to have anything to do with guns. Hunting is a dying way of life.”
A continued decline could spell bad news for the FWP, which receives 69 percent ($35.3 million) of its annual revenue from hunting and fishing license sales. In western Montana, statistics are pulled from three checking stations at Anaconda, Bonner and Darby. In 1997, 24,094 hunters checked through the stations. That dropped to 23,000 in 1998 and even lower, to 21,561 in 1999, an 11 percent decrease over two years.
FWP conducted a survey a number of years ago that indicated that most hunters are not hunting for the meat but, rather, for the chance at a set of trophy antlers. Management to provide that sort of hunt has included regulations that allow only bull elk with brow tines (which develop when the animal is two years old) to be taken. Many formerly open roads are now closed on a seasonal or permanent basis to give big game animals a higher measure of security during hunting season.
“In the Bitterroot, we’ve seen a gradual but steady increase in older bulls coming through the check station,” Firebaugh said. “It’s not the same in areas without the road closures.”
Those closures have made it much harder for the average person to hunt, Dey claims. “If you hike in five or six miles behind a barrier and kill something, how are you going to get it back out? ... I think that stops a lot of people who used to hunt especially older fellas like me.”
“Someone should compare the annual death rate in the state to the hunting decline,” Dey says flatly. “The people who used to hunt are dying off. It’s not being encouraged among young people anymore; a teenager with a gun is so vilified, most of them are afraid to pick up a gun. People don’t teach their kids to use guns for sport, and no kids are allowed to hunt alone anymore. ... If you don’t learn it before you’re 18, chances are you’ll never be interested.”
Firebaugh disagrees in part. He says state-required hunter safety education classes for youngsters who want to get a license are well filled each fall and he believes hunting is still a family experience. “It’s a big concern to all us us that the sport of hunting is passed on from generation to generation,” Firebaugh says. “I didn’t see as many family groups this year, but there were some.”
The Montana Wildlife Federation cites public land access issues as a major concern in the future of hunting and fishing in Montana. Much land that was once open to hunting is now closed. Dey agrees. “Too much land is locked up today,” he says. “If it’s not private, it’s a Forest Service road closure. Then you add the new law that says you have to have written permission to hunt private land. You better not step over a section line from the forest to someone’s property; it’ll get you a ticket and a dang big fine.”
In-state license fees for fishing, bird hunting, deer and elk can total more than $40. An average trip to the hills for a day will probably cost another $50 for fuel and food. Add in the cost of a $500-to-$1000 rifle, $100 worth of outdoor clothing, a box of ammunition at $10 and it doesnt take too many such trips to add up to the cost of a half a beef for the freezer.
“Hunting used to be for a winter’s meat and the fun of going to the woods with your kids,” Dey remembers. “Now it’s becoming a rich man’s sport, an elitist thing for those who can afford the guides and backcountry hunts.”
Firebaugh is less pessimistic, but agrees there is a degree of disillusionment in hunters returning empty-handed. “It’s probably a little frustrating for some of these hunters but folks can still enjoy getting out and just enjoy the day and the scenery.”
Last year’s harvest was so low that a special hunt was held in late December and January. But there are no plans to hold another hunt this year, Firebaugh said. In the next few weeks, information from this hunt will be complied and used to make decisions about tentative quotas for next year’s hunting seasons. Those quotas will be discussed at public meetings around the state in January and February and finalized later in the spring. Public comment is a vital part of the decision-making process, Firebaugh said.
“I always go and comment, but I don’t think they ever hear what I have to say,” says Dey. “They need to simplify things and encourage hunting if they want to see it continue.”