Taking care of the Great Public Estate.
Of all the questions which can come before this nation… there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.—Theodore Roosevelt
Here in southwest Montana, we are surrounded by the Great Public Estate: millions of acres of public land, teeming with fish and wildlife held in trust by federal and state agencies, extending in all directions to the horizon—a living, breathing testament to the will, perseverance, and grit of generations of dogged conservationists that took up the torch long before Montana was a state. It’s up to all of us to continue to build upon this legacy by leaving it better than we inherited it. So as we head out to fill our freezers and psyches with Montana soul food this autumn, let’s all do our damnedest to not be jerks in the great outdoors, intentionally or otherwise.
Trash & Brass
The fundamentals of being a good steward on the landscape are as simple as packing out what you pack in, and leaving gates as you found them. Cat-hole your waste 200 feet from water sources and trails, and put your campfire out cold before abandoning it. Grab someone else’s lost wrapper or rifle brass and haul it off the mountain with you. It feels good, but don’t take my word for it, give it a try. And so help me God, the next time I catch someone dropping a deuce 15 feet off the trail, I’m hauling your business down to the trailhead and putting it under your windshield wiper. Don’t test me on this one.
A little goes a long way. No one wants to pull up to his or her favorite public-land access point only to find that great minds think alike. Still, it is going to happen. A friendly “Mornin’!” and a brief chat at the trailhead can keep everyone untangled in the darkness as we fan out into the high country. Have an idea of how many hunters a trailhead can reasonably accommodate before you arrive, and have a backup plan or two in case the trailhead is packed full. Don’t be the jerk that sleeps in and hikes through the middle of everyone else’s hunt right when the lights come on at daybreak.
Get the Lead Out
Non-target species like bald and golden eagles consume lead fragments in the offal we leave behind after a successful harvest. A shard of lead the size of a grain of rice is enough to debilitate our national symbol to the point of starvation. Thankfully, lead-free rifle ammunition has come a long way in the past five years and now performs just as well as the toxic lead does, and at competitive prices. So consider making the switch to copper rifle ammo this year, and give those big, beautiful birds a break.
Recruit, Retain, Reinvigorate
License fees and excise taxes on hunting and fishing gear pay for the vast majority of conservation work and fish-and-game management in America. So we need as many folks falling and staying madly in love with hunting and fishing as we can get to help ensure these public lands stay in public hands, are accessible, and thrive in perpetuity. Disconnected youth generally mature into disconnected adults that neither contribute nor vote with conservation in mind. So take the time to introduce someone to hunting or angling, help a solo or senior hunter stay engaged, or bring someone outdoors with you that has been on the sidelines for a few years. They’ll thank you, and the pleasure of sharing your passion will be yours to savor long after the hunt ends.
A few bad apples can ruin the whole barrel in the court of public opinion. When we witness bad behavior within our ranks, we have to call it out. There is never a valid excuse for shooting into a herd of elk, at a skylined animal, farther than you practice, or outside of legal shooting hours. Montana FWP has a tip line devoted to reporting poaching and other illegal behavior: 800-TIP-MONT.
We’ve all probably had a moment in the woods that we wish we could do over. Every now and then, even good people make mistakes. A stubby branch in dark timber is confused for a bull’s brow tine or a buck wheels just as you release an arrow. If you make a poor choice or have a bad outcome, own it and call the local game warden to explain the situation. Even if no one is looking. It may cost you your tag, but it’s better than losing your soul.
Our outfitters and guides must hold themselves to the very highest standards of ethical conduct as hosts to our guests that bring hundreds of millions of dollars into rural economies and into the coffers of our fish-and-game management agencies. And the majority do, yet every year many of us hear stories or witness guides nearly riding over the top of other hunters to place clients in front of elk and similar shenanigans. The Montana Board of Outfitters has dedicated phone and email contacts for reporting license-holders who behave badly. I’m sure they’d appreciate hearing if one of their own is hurting their credibility. Finally, let’s all be mindful of the grip-and-grin photos that we post online and to social media. Let’s challenge ourselves to post a memory of the hunt or day on the water that revolves around something other than the harvest (read: the dead animal). We all know there is so much more to the outdoor experience, so let’s try to highlight those moments instead. After all, these are what make up the majority of our experiences afield. Over time, most of us come to realize that the time afield with family and friends is the true highlight reel.
Paying It Forward
If your situation allows, consider donating some of your time or money to a conservation organization whose values closely align with your own. Some focus their efforts on advocating, lobbying, and litigating for access to public land and water, while others stress habitat acquisition and conservation, often with particular critters in mind—elk, mule deer, ducks, trout, pheasants, walleye, turkeys, and just about any other fish or game animal you can name. Often what is good for one species (water, forage, security cover, connectivity, etc.) tends to benefit a suite of other game and non-game species, too. Most conservation organizations offer weekend sweat-equity opportunities like fence- or weed-pulls and other habitat-enhancement projects, which are just as important as financial donations. In the end, all of these efforts contribute to our generation’s conservation legacy. Now get out there and make Teddy proud.
John Cataldo is a member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Mule Deer Foundation, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, the Sacajawea Audubon Society, and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.