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Zach Brown

ZACH BROWN

In 2018, One Montana started the Montana Master Hunter Program on a hypothesis: that there would be a demand for advanced education opportunities within Montana’s hunting community, and that more than a few landowners would be excited to work with respectful, highly skilled, and vetted hunters. A year and a half later, we are excited to report that our bets were right on; in fact, we hit the jack pot.

We have graduated 90 Master Hunters through our rigorous program. Our class requires our students to dedicate over 50 hours of their nights and weekends towards classroom study, lectures, readings and skills training. At the end of our course, we require a 75% passing score on a 100-point written exam, and passage of a rifle accuracy certification led by our partners at 406 Precision (https://www.406precision.com/). The program requires hunters to engage at a level above and beyond any other American hunting certification out there. Our “Master Hunters” truly earn their title.

Cascade Rancher Scott Hibbard helped jump start this project as a contractor to One Montana in 2015, when this program was still just an idea in the mind of a few. (Scott and his brother are also key members of the Devil’s Kitchen Working Group, which has created a collaborative hunting access program between Montana FWP, a group of landowners and outfitters in the Cascade area.) Scott spent the better part of six months on the phone and on the road, meeting with landowners and hunters across Montana.

He asked dozens on folks what would it take to improve hunting access and wildlife in Montana; and how can we improve relations between our state’s landowner and hunting communities?

His answers to those questions became the curriculum framework behind our course. Additionally, Scott’s focus on landowner perspectives, including agricultural economics and private land stewardship, helped us solidify the buy-in of landowner groups such as the Montana Stockgrowers Association, the Grain Growers Association and the Western Landowners Alliance. That focus, making sure that everything about our program is “landowner driven”, has become the heart and soul of our program.

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After our hunters graduate, One Montana’s staff works hard to find them places to hunt. We reach out to thoughtful landowners who might be looking for help managing their wildlife populations, but are hesitant to just let any random person onto their property. In one case, we have a ranch partner that is offering a service-for-access agreement. If a Master Hunter agrees to spend one Saturday lopping encroaching conifers – a task that improves wildlife habitat as well as cattle grazing conditions –they hunter can earn a 2-day cow elk hunt. And for two full days of lopping, a Master Hunter can earn the privilege of crossing private land to access landlocked public land for three days of archery bull elk hunting.

In another example, a rancher is allowing our Master Hunters to hunt whitetail deer, an opportunity he has not allowed to anyone for many years because the deer spend time near ranch buildings and cattle. But he sees a need for management, and trusts that our vetted hunters will make safe, ethical shots near his valuable property.

Ultimately, Master Hunters are actively improving hunting access and wildlife management in Montana. Working with these hunters and the stewardship-oriented landowners who invite them onto their land is enough to give a person hope. These Montanans are breaking down barriers between rural and urban communities, and building relationships that will serve Montana’s people and wildlife for many years to come.

Master Hunters are community builders and ambassadors for Montana’s proud hunting tradition. Does that sound like you? Join us at mtmasterhunter.com.

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Zach Brown, of Bozeman, is program director for One Montana’s Common Ground Program. He is a three-term state representative for House District 63.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.