Ever since he was a boy, Mike Bergman has felt most comfortable outside, whether he’s carrying a rifle or tending crops.
A Sidney native, agriculture became Bergman’s business, but he’s found a way to incorporate that way of life with his love of sport shooting and hunting. In March Bergman and his wife, Angela, bought the 270-acre Blue Creek Sport Shooting Complex and Preserve five miles south of Billings on Bender Road. The couple are already planning an expansion and using the land to grow crops.
“I’ve got the outdoor passion,” said Mike, 44 and a Laurel resident.
The range is on the hilly prairies along Blue Creek, more than a mile away from the nearest neighbor. Mike,
owner of Safflower Technologies International, said he will raise alternative crops, such as safflower, sunflower and sanfoin, on the land.
“This is the first time these fields have ever seen crops,” he said.
The couple moved to Laurel in 2009 when they expanded their growing safflower business, and Mike said the gun range will give his agricultural business new opportunities to grow.
Mike said he paid “seven figures” for the range, and he’s spending about another $600,000 to expand the facility.
Key plans are to develop a training facility for Olympic trap and skeet shooters, which would include bunkers, grandstands and an administration building. Bergman hopes to finish the course next year.
It will be a nice boost for business, but Mike said he’s even more excited at the chance for young shooters to watch Olympic-level athletes train.
“That’s priceless,” he said.
Also, Mike said he hopes to build a course for Fitasc, an international clay-shooting competition started in France. It will likely take a few years but set Blue Creek apart from other courses, Mike said.
The Bergmans are keeping the range managers, Cheryl and Lee Wagner. They have five employees, two full-time and three part-time, and they hope to add about five more part-timers during expansion.
Blue Creek is one of at least four outdoor shooting ranges in Billings. Others are the Billings Trap Club, Yellowstone Rife Club and the Billings Rod and Gun Club.
On a bright Wednesday afternoon, the Bergmans look the part of gun range owners. Mike is wearing blue jeans, sunglasses and a camouflage hat, and he’s impervious to the loud cracks of nearby rifle shots.
Angela, who does most of the books, has a small tattoo of a pistol on her left ankle — an impetuous teenage choice that fits perfectly with her new business, she said.
The couple have three sons, Connor, 11, Xander, 7, and Kyler, 2.
Nationwide, shooting ranges have slumped in the past five years, largely because the recession cut into consumers’ disposable income for activities such as recreational shooting, according to the investment firm IbisWorld.
In Montana, the heart of hunting and gun culture, Mike said he sees a healthy interest in gun-club membership. Blue Creek has about 1,500 members, he said.
Last summer, the previous owners approved a $20 rate increase to boost membership fees to $120 annually starting July 1. The Bergmans said they are planning to keep that plan and are throwing in four guest passes as a courtesy to renewing members.
The Bergmans became members of Blue Creek when they moved back to Montana. They loved coming out to shoot, and Mike, an NRA-certified instructor, helped found the range’s youth clay shooting team, the Smokin’ Guns.
When the Bergmans heard that owner Jim Bailey was looking to sell the range, they jumped at the chance. It wasn’t hard to make a deal.
“We met on a Thursday and closed 10 days later,” Mike said.