Just how many upland bird hunters pursue pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge at the Pheasants Forever Coffee Creek Block Management Area (BMA) near Denton, Montana, over a four-month season? Answer: 400 – 500.
Comprised of several thousand contiguous acres, including adjacent conserved and public lands, this project – one of the most touted in Pheasants Forever’s history – produces substantial upland bird populations capable of withstanding a higher-than-average amount of hunting pressure. But it also brings up a more glaring point: even in access-rich Montana, there is demand for more high-quality, publicly-accessible upland habitat.
Just prior to the Rooster Road Trip, news came of 21,000 acres in the Lewistown area that had been pulled from the state’s Block Management Area
(BMA) program. This loss of access is distressing for hunters in general; for upland hunters, the sting is felt twofold as BMAs with high-caliber upland habitat are fewer and farther between.
For those unfamiliar with Block Management Areas, they are similar to the walk-in hunting areas many pheasant hunters are familiar with, but each individual BMA may have special considerations for access. For example, the first Lewistown area we hunted was a reservation-only site, one that allows a maximum of three hunting parties per week. This restriction creates more front-end work for the traveling hunter, but the end result is a better hunting experience. Of course, we (upland hunters) can’t control who owns the title, but we can be helpful to ensuring such golden access opportunities exist. By holding ourselves to the highest ethical standard and going out of our way to thank landowners who voluntarily participate in such programs, we can all contribute to public access properties throughout the country.
Continuing to improve access opportunities for upland hunters, Montana recently unveiled the Open Fields for Game Bird Hunters
walk-in hunting program. Since 2012, nearly 100 private landowners have enrolled 33,000 acres of CRP and other high-quality wildlife habitat into this phenomenal access program. In comparison to BMAs, Open Fields areas are smaller parcels, but they could be considered more “hassle free” because no additional permission from the landowner is required. Funding for the Open Fields for Game Bird Hunters program comes from the Voluntary Public Access-Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP). The VPA-HIP funding represents the first time federal Farm Bill funding has been offered to assist states in implementing private land hunting, fishing, and access programs. The inclusion of VPA-HIP in past Farm Bills was strongly supported by Pheasants Forever.
As with any walk-in program, there is always long-term uncertainty because they are in private ownership, which makes permanently conserved projects like Coffee Creek and nearby Wolf Creek – another Pheasants Forever-led acquisition included in the Block Management program – all the more critical. Coffee Creek has been open to public access for nearly 15 years, and Wolf Creek since the turn of the decade. These are marquee projects, but it’s not enough. It’s time for another keystone project, and then another one, and then another one. The future of upland hunting and access in Montana depends on what we do next.
-Anthony Hauck is Pheasants Forever’s director of public relations. Contact him at AHauck@pheasantsforever.org and follow him on Twitter @AnthonyHauckPF.