The February revelation that a Texas couple bought 125,800 acres of forest west of Kalispell sparked an unusually emotional response from the lively hunting, fishing and recreation community of northwest Montana, even after new owners promised much of the public access Maintained by hunters and hunters Anglers have come to enjoy over the decades.
Indeed, new owners Mark and Robyn Jones kept their promise to renegotiate access agreements with state land managers this spring by buying 106,052 acres of their newly acquired property, called Flathead Ridge Ranch, in Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ (FWP ) Block management program, a system that gives the public access to private land in exchange for a patrol presence by state rangers.
The new owners have also given assurances that they have no plans for large-scale commercial development of the property that they consider a “family investment” and intend to preserve it for generations. All they have asked of the public in return for their allowances is a basic land-use label that was often not seen in the businesses’ former forest areas where bullet-riddled signs and abandoned piles of rubbish were a given.
The specter of restricted land access, however, touched a nerve among local athletic groups, testifying to a growing concern about preserving a way of life that some consider to be eroding under pressure from non-state interests, and with them an increase in demand for outdoor recreation including hunting.
Earlier this month, the state released numbers detailing license application numbers for the 2021 season, showing that hunters were posting record numbers. The number of resident applicants increased year-on-year by 12.5% (82,384) and the number of non-resident applicants by 29.5% (16,650) applicants for special deer and elk permits.
The sale of fishing licenses is also increasing. As of April 25, 132,130 resident licenses were sold, an increase of 2.25% from 2020; However, due to strict travel restrictions in place at the time last year, these sales have declined significantly. The increase in demand is most evident in the sale of non-resident fishing licenses, which is almost 60% up on the previous year.
The growth in license sales and applicants reflects the value Montans and visitors alike place on hunting opportunities, as well as the abundant wildlife resource that FWP manages, said Hank Worsech, the agency’s director.
“The people who buy licenses and come here to hunt are vital partners in managing and protecting these resources,” said Worsech, noting that funds generated through license sales are used for the benefit of hunters and anglers. “Without them, we can’t do all of the work that we do.”
Much of the spike in license sales is due to resident applications, although Worsech said anyone who has lived in Montana for at least six months can apply for residency, meaning much of the renewed interest is likely due to the state’s population influx is due.
“I’m sure a lot of the increase we’re seeing is people who recently came to Montana,” Worsech told the newly appointed members of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission earlier this month.
Whether the numbers reflect those trying a new outdoor activity for the first time or someone rekindling a previous passion, the renewed popularity doesn’t seem to be waning. Instead, natural resource managers are preparing for the trend to continue while providing greater reach and education on how to responsibly recreate yourself outdoors.
While hunters and anglers are often familiar with basic outdoor etiquette and “Leave No Trace” principles, the same is not true of the record breaking crowds that visit Montana state parks.
Last year, Montana State Parks had more than 3.4 million visitors, an increase of nearly 30% from 2019, while the six units of Flathead Lake State Park had the highest number of visitors with 471,690 visits, an increase of nearly 33% corresponds to the previous year. Taken together, the list of 13 state parks in northwest Montana approached 1 million visitors.
“These record-breaking visitor numbers shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who visited one of our parks in 2020,” said Beth Shumate, administrator of FWP’s parks division. “The increase in the number of people outdoors was evident and our staff went out of their way to keep our parks safe and accessible.”
Sometimes duties included cleaning up improperly disposed of rubbish or removing graffiti. In other cases, visitors left “toilet paper blooms” along paths or other frequented areas. At the same time, the Montana hotline for reporting violations of fish, wildlife and other recreational activities – 1-800-TIP-MONT – has seen a steady increase in calls and online reports in recent years, according to FWP law enforcement officers.
Law enforcement reports rose from around 3,700 in 2019 to nearly 4,100 in 2020, a jump of nearly 11%. The total number of reports rose by around a third from around 5,100 to 6,800. The category that increased the most included aquatic invasive species (AIS) -related calls, which increased 114% from 270 to 579 in a single year.
Mark Jones, the wealthy businessman from Texas who now owns a large part of the former Weyerhaeuser woodland west of Kalispell, emphasized that while he would like to continue to grant access to a large part of the property, this access depends on the behavior of the public users.
“Our intent is to be good neighbors, but being good neighbors is a one-way street,” said Jones. “We hope that the public who want to use this land also feel obliged to be good neighbors.”