Block Management: Behind the Scenes of Region 7's Popular Hunter Access Program

Telephones at the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) Region 7 headquarters in Miles City were ringing off the hook Monday morning, with sportsmen and women looking to secure reservations on Block Management Areas. It was the first day people could get contact information for landowners participating in the region’s Block Management Program and line up dates to hunt this fall.

Block Management personnel were set up in the conference room to receive walk-in hunters and answer phones. Bea Sturtz, Cori Enders and Joyce Shumway fielded one call after another, dispensing phone numbers and other details about participating properties. Tables were stocked with access guide books, maps and brochures.

Access guides became available at the office Aug. 15, and FWP mailed out nearly 200 copies to hunters on a waiting list. Landowners’ contact information is not in the guides, but hunters can request five contacts and five maps per day from FWP. 

 

Access on a grand scale

Statewide, 1,262 landowners are enrolled in Block Management, allowing access to 7,234,628 acres. “It’s become a high-profile program that hunters depend on and the department depends on to help ensure that hunters have the ability to help manage public wildlife on private lands,” said Alan Charles, statewide landowner/sportsman relations coordinator. Charles is formerly from Miles City but is now based in Helena.

Miles City’s Region 7 has both the largest amount of private land ownership (76 percent) and the largest Block Management program in the state, with 320 cooperators enrolling about 1.67 million private acres. For 2016, 264 Block Management Areas will provide access to more than 2,290,000 acres of private, state and federal lands in 13 southeastern Montana counties.

According to the 2016 Block Management Hunting Access Guide, “Region 7 produces, on average, 25 percent of the state’s annual mule deer harvest, 10 percent of the white-tailed deer harvest, 35 percent of the antelope harvest and 5 percent of the elk harvest.” The region also supports populations of six species of upland birds and a variety of waterfowl for diverse hunting opportunities.

Last year, almost 44,000 resident and non-resident hunters utilized the program in Region 7.

When asked if he thinks people grasp the scope of the program here, Block Management Coordinator Travis Muscha said, “I don’t think people really understand the size of the region and the amount of property and the amount of people that are running through here.”

 

Millions for area economy

What does that mean for the area economy? Hunters —  especially non-residents - buy licenses, gas, groceries and hunting supplies, plus they eat at area restaurants and stay in area hotels. In 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available, FWP estimated that Block Management hunting brought an economic impact of $22,856,119 in Region 7 alone. Compared to the state’s cost of administering the local program — $1,067,852 in 2015 — it’s a huge return. Hunters foot the bill for it through portions of various license fees.

FWP has a formula based on hunter surveys and other data to determine how much resident and non-resident hunters who utilize Block Management spend. For instance, 2011 figures showed that resident elk hunters spent an estimated $85 per day, while non-residents spent $399.50 a day. The figures vary for each species, and of course non-residents pay more for licenses, gas and lodging. The resident and non-resident spending totals per day for deer in 2011 were $65.88 and $182.75, respectively; for antelope $61.63 and $231.63; for upland birds $65.35 and $386.70; and for waterfowl $53.45 and $334.56.

 

Yearround Effort

Muscha is often asked what he does when it’s not big game hunting season, but the reality is that the logistics of Block Management stretch from January through December.

“A lot of people, they don’t think it’s a full-time job, but it’s all year, and that’s not even enough time,” he said.

The nearly inch-thick report from the 2015 program breaks down by month the countless tasks that need to be handled, including updating GIS databases, holding appreciation dinners, preparing contracts, printing access guides, visiting landowners, signing contracts, hiring seasonal staff, answering hunters’ questions, putting up sign-in boxes, taking reservations, resolving conflicts and sorting thousands of comment cards.

Charles noted that Region 7 is the only office that dedicates a room and personnel during big game season for walk-in Block Management hunters, which he dubs “the war room.”

“The region has added an extra layer of assistance that many hunters and landowners have come to appreciate,” he said, adding that other regions are taking note.

Referring to his administrative assistant, Bea Sturtz, Muscha said, “Bea, she’s the backbone of this regional program. She takes care of processing all the contracts, she takes care of getting all the access guide requests taken in and mailed out, she puts landowners’ supplies together and mails them out, she takes phone calls and gives out most of the info. Without that position, we couldn’t deliver the program at the level we do.”

Meanwhile, Muscha and two seasonal hunter access technicians are busy putting up boxes with maps and permission slips at 102 Type 1 Block Management Areas throughout the region, which allow hunters to sign themselves in.

At the end of September, Muscha will add 10 more techs, who will be stationed in mobile offices at Sand Springs, Hysham, Colstrip, Powderville and Ekalaka to issue permission on behalf of landowners on Type 2 Block Management Areas who request an FWP presence.

When asked if he was surprised that this size of staff could administer such a massive program, Muscha replied, “No, I’m not surprised, because of the quality of people we have working here.”

“I’m proud that we’re able to do that,” Charles said.

Charles stressed that landowners are most appreciative of the services that FWP provides on the ground, saying, “That’s a key element of keeping gates open on private land, is having a presence, having someone to keep an eye on things.”

 

Building relationships

One of the most time-consuming tasks is enrolling landowners, even if many are the same cooperators from previous seasons. But according to Muscha, the time spent is vital to the program.

He has visited with nearly all of the 320 area cooperators either in person or by telephone.

“Maybe the most important and unique thing compared to the rest of the state is that we do go out and meet with every landowner and renew the contract. Most other regions don’t do that — they mail them out,” Muscha said.

Contract renewals typically begin in April and enrollment runs until mid-July, during which Muscha and staff from the wildlife and enforcement divisions visit cooperators.

“The first step is just starting to form that relationship, because that’s really the most important thing we’re doing is working on that relationship with the landowner,” Muscha said.

In the spring Muscha gets calls from cooperators asking when FWP is coming out, because they haven’t heard from him yet. “They expect to see us at least once a year, if not more,” he said.

Why landowners sign on

Block Management offers a small incentive for landowners to allow hunters access: $11 per hunter per hunter day, with a cap of $12,000 per year. They also receive a free hunting or fishing license and a free subscription to FWP’s magazine, Montana Outdoors.

Since cooperators could make more through private leases or outfitting, Muscha is convinced that they sign up for reasons beyond money.

“We had 130 cooperators this year that reached 20 years or more in the program,” he said. “I think the reason they continue to do it is, one, they believe in public access, they like having wildlife, they like seeing wildlife, they like being able to manage wildlife, then because of the relationship that’s been built since 1985, when it (Block Management) started.”

Their positive experiences tend to influence their neighbors, which helps FWP to enroll new members. Muscha also hopes cooperators pass their attitudes on to the next generation. But where there’s no history with the program, he finds there’s still a lack of understanding about what it entails.

 

Landowners retain control

“There’s a pretty big misconception about Block Management,” Muscha said. “From the landowners’ perspective, most people think it’s just open access — you have to allow anybody and everybody on the property, which is not true. You tell me how you want to manage hunting and wildlife, and we’ll make it work. They retain 100 percent control of hunting and management, they can limit the number of hunters per day, split the ranch up into pasture assignments, send people where they’re most comfortable. We don’t tell landowners what to do; they tell us how they want to do it.”

Once they learn FWP is not taking over the hunting, Muscha finds they are much more receptive to the program.

Charles echoes that view.

“It’s the relationship between the department and the landowner that conveys respect for private property rights,” he said. “We don’t lease. We don’t take control. This agency uses Block Management as an important way to show appreciation both for the habitat landowners provide and also for the access they provide on a voluntary basis.”

Montana’s Block Management model is designed to meet the individual landowner’s needs, and Charles believes that’s why it’s been so successful.

“We need to fight to keep the flexibility that we currently have in the program,” he said. “Everyone looks a little different, and there’s a tendency to want to make it one size fits all because it’s easier to administer, but I think that would be the demise of the program. The ability to walk up to the landowner, sit down and say, ‘How do you want to manage your land,’ I think that’s going to be critical into the future.”

Muscha said Block Management is key to meeting the growing need and desire for public access from sportsmen, noting, “We’re losing access every day.”

But it’s much more than just an occupation for him.

“The biggest reward for me is being able to have a job where I can ensure that there’s going to be access for my kids and the next generation — access now and access into the future — and just to be a part of it,” he said.

(Marla Prell is an information and education program manager with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and is the former editor of the Miles City Star.)