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Back in 2007, a hunting organization, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, undertook a massive effort to identify the most important regions in the state for Montana hunters. They produced a heat map based on input from over 40 sporting clubs. The more an area was identified as being important, the brighter it got.

I recently looked at this map and was struck that North Central Montana was lit up like a Christmas tree.

I suppose it’s no secret. Missouri River Country has some of the best hunting in the state. The prairies and coulees are home to robust elk herds, trophy mule deer, world-famous bighorn, and upland game birds galore. It’s a testament to the region’s high-quality public and working lands.

63,000 elk hunt days

It’s also a destination for many. In 2018, the region experienced over 63,000 elk hunting days according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks estimates. Those estimates include resident and nonresidents who hunted in parts of Blaine, Phillips, Fergus, Petroleum, and Garfield Counties near the Charles M Russell National Wildlife Refuge and the Missouri River Breaks National Monument.

The future of hunting in North Central Montana is highly dependent on continued access to public and private lands and adequately protecting our habitat. Hunters in North Central Montana should be extremely thankful for the sheer amount of public land hunting opportunities in the region, and for the many private landowners who allow access and/or work cooperatively with the state to manage wildlife.

For example, one of the region’s landowners, American Prairie Reserve, has a hunter-friendly policy that allows the general public to cross private lands to reach adjacent public parcels. This conservation organization also allows the public to hunt their private lands and hosts an annual bison harvest. When it comes to hunting, every property that American Prairie Reserve acquires on the free market means better public access opportunities in North Central Montana.

Mabee Road closure

It’s very important to me to see that some landowners are working so hard to create access. Because others, unfortunately, are doing the opposite. For example, hunters across the state were recently dismayed to learn a District Court judge had ruled against public access to the Mabee Road in Fergus county. That ruling means the public has lost the ability to access a massive piece of public lands in one of the most sought-after hunting destinations in the state.

Closing off access to public lands is not good for hunters nor is it good for North Central Montana as a whole. When you lose the access that fuels the hunting, you also lose the hunting economy that support local businesses.

Remember those 63,000 elk hunter days recorded in 2018 in this region alone? That equals $9.5 million dollars in direct spending according to Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks estimates for how much resident and nonresident hunter spend daily.

And that’s just the elk hunters. Can you imagine if we didn’t have this multi-million dollar pulse to support our gas stations, hotels, grocery stores, taverns, and gift shops?

It’s in everyone’s best interest to protect the sustainable hunting economy in North Central Montana. To do that, we need to ensure North Central Montana remains a destination by protecting our habitat and our public access.

I’m encouraged by landowners like American Prairie Reserve who are working to open up public lands. But more needs to be done. There is an important role for more collaborative partnerships between hunters, landowners, and our state and federal agencies.

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Justin Schaaf, of Fort Peck, is a hunter and conservationist.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.