Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on hunting in Montana. Read Part II here.
Nationwide, the number of hunters has been in decline for decades. But Montana’s hunter population has held steady, an unsurprising anomaly perhaps, given the state’s outdoor tradition and easy access to game.
Hunters spent $324 million in Big Sky Country on gas, lodging, food, guide fees and other related expenses in 2016, according to statistics from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. That number doesn’t include money spent on gear like firearms and boots or hunting licenses.
Some towns’ survival would be threatened were it not for the hoards of hunters who spend the months of September to December in pursuit of game, said FWP information manager Marc Kloker, who mentioned Malta specifically.
Starting Sep. 1, when bird season takes flight, and through the end of big game and bird season, hunters flock to Malta, Kloker said, bombarding the area’s lodging, dining and shopping businesses.
“Malta, to me, is a perfect example of a town that, I think, really survives because of hunting,” Kloker said during an interview with The Herald.
The Herald called lodging businesses in Malta and found front desk personnel echoing Kloker’s sentiment:
“Hunting season is probably one of the busiest,” a representative of the Great Northern Hotel said.
“All of November, all we have is hunters,” a representative of Edgewater Inn and RV Park said.
Resident and nonresident hunters in Big Sky Country bought 240,700 hunting licenses in 2014.
The amount of money a nonresident will spend on a license is significantly higher than the cost for Montana residents. For example, out-of-staters who want to hunt deer in Montana must buy a deer combination license, which costs $639. That combination license also allows upland bird hunting and fishing.
A deer license for a Montanan costs $16 (it does not include upland bird or fishing). Nonresidents are also limited to 10% of any special licenses, such as bighorn sheep or bison, a way the state ensures that Montanans can enjoy the perks of residency.
While the high cost of licenses for nonresidents is good for the Montana economy, Kloker opined, it is not so great for middle-class hunters looking for hunting opportunities they don’t have in their home states.
Montana hunter rates are far higher than the national rate.
In 2016, 11.5 million people 16 and older hunted, according to a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service survey. In Montana, a majority of all permits sold in 2014 —197,020 —were bought by residents. With just a touch over 1 million residents in 2014, that would’ve made Montana hunters a far higher percentage of the population than the national component.
Jeff Dibblee is one of those 197,020 Montana hunters.
He’s not exactly sure how old he was on his first hunts. The memory, or memories, of those early outings are stacked beneath half a century of others. He’s been hunting since “as early as I can remember as a young child,” he says.
That’s as best as he can put it.
As is typical of most hunters, Dibblee’s family introduced him to the activity he still loves. In his case, his uncles took him bird hunting. And that’s where he’s really developed his niche expertise — waterfowl, ducks especially.
His recent retirement as a railroad man opened up more time for one of his favorite pastimes, for being in the outdoors he treasures so much. And for introducing others to the activity he loves.
Dibblee recently got a bird dog, a young rambunctious black Labrador retriever ironically named Slough-Foot, who is preparing for a lifetime of waterfowl retrieving. During an interview in his Hill County home, Dibblee had to put the hyper canine up until it was picture time.
Dibblee was out in the field first thing on opening day, maxing out, together with a fellow hunter, with a mix of mallards, widgeons, pintails and spoonbill ducks. Slough-Foot stayed home, not yet deemed ready for his life’s calling. Next season, he should be ready.
Talk to most seasoned hunters and chances are for them a hunt is far from a quest to simply kill things. And in these days of plenty, it usually goes beyond putting food on the table, although actual free-range meat is a big draw for many.
Hunters believe there’s something undeniably human about hunting, an experience that touches deep down into who we are as a species, a front seat to the natural beauty we may otherwise miss, a chance to actively participate in the cycle of life.
Hunting, to Dibblee, is a natural “God-given” right.
But it’s more. It’s peaceful, a time to clear his head.
“You get a sense of tranquility when you sit in the blind,” he says. “You think about the world.”
There’s also the challenge.
“It’s fascinating matching wits with the waterfowl,” he said.
Dibblee is not a selfish man. He wants others to share this experience he thinks so much of. He wants others to get out of it what he’s been getting out of it for so long. One thing he likes to do as much as possible is introducing young people to hunting.
Dibblee talked about a young man from his church’s youth group.
The young man just had a parent die. Before that, he was a good student, Dibblee said. His parent’s passing, however, began to change the trajectory of his life. He was having a hard time. Dibblee thought it might help to get that young man out in the field. The kid had “never hunted in his life,” but it wouldn’t hurt to begin.
He took him hunting for deer on the Hi-Line. The young man responded — he liked it — he was further interested.
“He stuck with me,” Dibblee said.
“Then we went duck hunting.” And he liked that too.
Dibblee wholeheartedly believes introducing the young man to hunting helped get him back on track, helped him cope with his loss.
Besides the clarity hunting offers, it inspires confidence, especially for young people, Dibblee believes. But there’s a catch, he says, almost winking. It’s best to take new hunters out when the weather is nice.
The young man wasn’t the only one getting something from the experience. It was a treat for Dibblee as well.
“That’s why it’s so cool to bring young hunters. You can talk to them,” Dibblee said. “I’m fascinated by what they think.”
While the cliché tendency of older generations is to bemoan contemporary times and laud the days of yore, Dibblee sees things differently.
Hunting is better today than it was back in the day, he believes. The biggest reason is access to huntable land.
Montana has about 30 million acres of public land, almost all of which can be hunted, unless specific restrictions apply.
But there’s more, far more.
In 1985, Montana started a partnership program between the state and landowners called Block Management. In 1996, the Block Management program was significantly expanded.
Block Management areas allow hunters to hunt on private land owned by landowners who enroll in the program. Hunters simply sign in at boxes on the property’s entryway, or they get personal permission from the owner.
Block Management adds eight properties for a total of 28,521 acres of private land for hunters just in Hill County. In Blaine County, landowners provide access to 41 Block Management areas for a total of 319,754 acres.
There are Block Management areas all over the state. In Hill and Blaine counties’ Region 6, that adds up to 1,257,257 acres.
And this, Kloker believes, is why the Montana hunter rate shatters the national rate:
Hunting in Montana is cheap and easy.
Spend $40 on a few licenses, get in your pickup and in 30 minutes you’re surrounded by wildlife and the opportunity to put meat on the table.
He says he’s spoken to old friends from college who don’t hunt anymore because their situations are exactly the opposite. It costs money, much more, to get access to private land — very few states have programs like BMA — and if there is access to public land, it’s usually crowded because everyone is there.
“I think we’re obviously in one of the best states in the Union as far as access and available land to hunt,” Kloker said.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated.
Email Paul Dragu at firstname.lastname@example.org