As I fought my way through 7-foot-tall sagebrush, weaving left and right to find some semblance of a path, several eyes in the sky hundreds of miles overhead let me know that I was still on public land. Yet I couldn’t see more than 10 feet in any direction.
The eyes were Global Positioning System satellites. By triangulating to a Garmin receiver I was carrying, the satellites pinpointed my position accurately within about 15 feet.
I knew I was on Bureau of Land Management property because loaded onto the receiver was Montana Mapping & GPS’s tiny memory card.
The card overlays public lands onto a topographical format in the same colors found on maps — blue for state land, yellow for BLM and green for
What’s more, by moving the GPS unit’s pointer, I could scroll to the nearby private lands and the owner’s name would appear on the screen. If a wounded animal were to run onto private land, or if I wanted to ask permission for access to the public land via private land, I had the landowner’s name.
Put it all together and I carried in my hand a Star Trek-like collection of data that helped me scout public land in a new area without fear of trespassing on private land that wasn’t clearly posted.
Eric Siegfried, 27, who graduated from high school in Miles City and received a mechanical engineering degree at Montana State University, is the brains behind the programming. A public land hunter and guide, he began working on the maps about two years ago.
“I always wanted something on my computer and on a GPS was even better,” he said.
The overlay data on property ownership comes from state data. Siegfried writes all of the computer code so the GPS knows how to read the maps and display them. As the Missoula-based business continues to grow, he’s getting help from one full-time partner and three other part-time helpers.
“My partner is on the phone all day every day selling maps,” Siegfried said. “Wyoming and Montana are probably the two most popular states right now.”
The cards can be found at Scheels and Sportsmen’s Warehouse stores in Montana, ordered online or by phone at 208-GPS-MAPS.
Shayne Hinz, a Billings graphic artist and one of the part-time workers, said the units are especially popular with state game wardens.
“I was hunting Saturday and ran into a warden that had one,” Hinz said. “A lot of state agencies are using them.”
Mapping guru Ralph Saunders of Billings has used the Montana Mapping program during his work, calling it unbelievably useful. One of the shortfalls he pointed out is that the landowner data can become quickly outdated. Montana Mapping offers annual updates of the data for $20 a year, helping somewhat.
Sometimes, I had a hard time getting the unit to reveal the landowner’s name as the cursor kept giving me information on contour lines, creeks and parcel boundaries. It helped to zoom in closer.
Saunders, who has created a series of maps for the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, said even though the information provided through a GPS unit is great, it doesn’t make paper maps obsolete.
“It’s a part of mapping, it’s a piece of information,” Saunders said.
I agree. Even with the GPS unit in hand, I still like to refer to a map for a larger view or the ability to see distances on a larger scale. The small screen of a GPS unit, at any great distance, makes the image too small.
What the GPS allows you to do that a map can’t is scroll in close for detailed views, meaning hunters and hikers don’t have to carry several quad maps. On a recent hunting trip I sat down for a snack and used the GPS to scroll around my immediate area. Unknown to me, there was a pond nearby. When I hiked over to check it out, I saw a grunting bull moose swim past. Without the GPS, I would never have explored the area.
Even with such great detail, the GPS won’t show you if there is wildlife on the land. Hunters still have to find that out when scouting. After beating my way through the sagebrush, which surprisingly contained deer scat and beds, I lumbered over a hill and down the other side in hopes of seeing more wildlife and also to outline the boundaries of the public land I was researching. Unfortunately, the public parcel that I had high hopes for contained a lot of fragmented habitat, crisscrossed by roads and canals. But I did see one deer as I sat to rest, and saw sign that the animals often move through the area. It would take more scouting to find out when. I also discovered what could be an easier route to access the land.
Overall, I see the public lands overlay as a great tool for reaching isolated sections of state land, some of which are accessible through narrow strips of BLM land. Hutners and others still need to be respectful of adjoining private landowners and obey applicable laws, but now more than ever they have a tool to assure themselves of their legal location.
The software is available for 10 other Western states, including Wyoming, Washington and Idaho. It can be purchased as software downloaded to a computer, which can then be transferred to a GPS receiver, or in a tinier-than-a-dime SD card that is inserted directly into compatible GPS units. The cost is $99.99.
As I began the hike back to my truck after the day of scouting, what was left of my water sloshed reassuringly in my pack. Although dishwater warm, it was my only hydration on the hot day. Given the dryness of the terrain, it seemed hard to believe any deer would need to even cross this land. But when I came upon what looked like an old deer bed, I turned and could see the bluff offered an expansive view of the surrounding area. Plus, there was a perfect escape route up a steep coulee behind the bluff.
With the GPS I could mark the bed as a waypoint and return on a cooler day in hopes of jumping a buck on public land.
Contact Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 657-1387.