Hunter/Ranch Problems and Solutions in Montana
by James E. Knight, Extension Wildlife Specialist and Erik J. Swensson, Research Technician -- Department of Animal and Range Sciences, Montana State University, Bozeman
"The objective of this study was to identify perceived problems and possible solutions between hunters and ranchers in Montana."
Montana hunter/rancher relations have become increasingly strained of the past several years. Hunters are concerned about diminishing access to private land for hunting opportunities and ranchers feel helpless to control increasing wildlife populations and believe their contributions to wildlife habitat are overlooked.
A survey conducted by researchers Montana State University looked at perceived problems and possible solutions between hunters and ranchers. A questionnaire was mailed to a sample of Montana resident hunters and Montana ranchers. Questions related to problems and solutions were asked identically to both groups.
Situation and Background
Livestock production in Montana is a one billion dollar industry. Hunting in Montana provides 333 million dollars of the 2.5 billion dollar tourism industry. Montana hunter/rancher relations have become increasingly strained over the past several years. Hunters are concerned about diminishing access to private and public land for hunting opportunities. Ranchers are concerned about increasing wildlife populations and feel their contributions to wildlife habitat are overlooked.
Conflicts between hunters and ranchers in Montana have been escalating in recent years. This is a trend occurring throughout the United States. A survey conducted in New Mexico found that one obstacle between better hunter/rancher relationships was negative attitudes a small number of hunters and ranchers had towards each other. Another study reported problem solving between hunters and ranchers had become more confrontational and oriented towards single issues.
In order to address hunter/rancher conflicts and solutions, it is first necessary to identify perceived problems and possible solutions. Three different methods to collect information have been utilized and all have inherent shortcomings. Advocacy group membership surveys are often used to identify problems because members are available and readily give their views. Unfortunately, little effort has been made to determine if they reflect the views of the population as a whole or just the views of an active segment. Public hearings and meetings is another method of identifying problems but one study found that meeting attendees stated more extreme views than the general population. The use of questionnaires has been an effective way of getting input representative of an entire population, but because surveys have been aimed at a single group they have not been useful in identifying commonalities between groups.
The objective of this study was to identify perceived problems and possible solutions between hunters and ranchers in Montana.
A questionnaire designed to identify perceived problems and possible solutions to hunter/rancher conflicts was mailed to 1,000 Montana resident big game hunters and 989 Montana ranchers. Identification of stakeholders in the hunter/rancher issues was determined to develop appropriate mailing lists. The stakeholders for hunters were determined to be avid resident Montana sportsman. The stakeholders for ranchers were determined to be people depending upon agriculture for their livelihood. Hunters were randomly selected from the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks database of deer, elk, and antelope 1994 hunting permit purchasers. One thousand hunters purchasing a resident combination license for deer and elk and who drew an antelope special permit were selected from the database. Rancher names were randomly selected from lists obtained from county extension agents. County extension agents in Montana were sent letters requesting the names of 25 ranchers, who controlled a minimum of 1000 acres, and who in the opinion of the county agent, had views on hunter/rancher related issues representative of the county.
The survey consisted of a cover letter, the questionnaire, and a map outlining designated hunting regions within the state. The cover letter explained how names for the mailing lists were obtained, who was sponsoring the project, and the purpose for conducting the survey. The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks regional map was included on the back of each letter for questions pertaining to regional data.
A portion of the survey consisted of questions that were specific to each of the two groups (past hunting experience, years hunted, locations of ranch, present hunting allowed, etc.). These questions were designed to determine background characteristics of hunters and ranchers. Questions related to perceived conflicts and possible solutions, perceived trends in game populations, importance of agriculture and private lands contribution to wildlife, and representation were asked in identical format of both hunters and ranchers. Survey questions were written in a closed response format, limiting the number of possible responses. A follow-up telephone survey was conducted after the return of the mail survey to obtain information from non-respondents. Possible non-respondent bias was addressed using twenty-five people, randomly selected from both the hunter list and the rancher list, who did not respond to the mail survey.
Thirty-five percent of the hunters and 42% of the ranchers responded to the mail survey. Sixty-five percent of the hunters responding to the survey had more than ten years of hunting experience, which fits the description of the defined group of hunting stakeholders. Sixty percent of the ranchers responding to the survey owned or managed property from 1000 to 10000 acres, matching the rancher stakeholder description.
Hunters and ranchers were asked to identify perceived conflicts between the two groups and were given 14 choices. The respondents were asked to rank each conflict from 1 to 6, with 1 meaning it is not a problem and 6 meaning it is a major problem. Conflicts that scored as a major problem were ranked for both hunters and ranchers.
The top three conflicts ranked as a major problem by hunters were too little access to private land, driving off roads, and trespassing. The top three conflicts ranked by ranchers as a major problem were: driving off roads, trespassing and too many hunters. Although these items were ranked by both hunters and ranchers as the top three major problems there were some differences between the two groups. Ranchers ranked driving off roads and trespassing as greater problems than hunters. Too little access to private land was ranked as more of a problem by hunters than ranchers. Too many hunters was ranked as a major problem by both hunters and ranchers.
Ten choices for possible solutions to conflicts were asked of both hunters and ranchers. The respondents were asked to rank each possible solution from 1 to 6, with 1 having low potential as a solution and 6 having high potential as a solution. Solutions having a high potential were ranked for both hunters and ranchers. Hunters ranked greater consideration and appreciation by ranchers, better communication between hunters and ranchers, and better boundary identification as having the highest potential as solutions to hunter/rancher conflicts. The top three solutions to hunter/rancher conflicts as identified by ranchers were stiffer penalties for violators, better communication between hunters and ranchers, and greater consideration and appreciation by hunters.
Hunters ranked greater consideration and appreciation by ranchers as having higher potential for a solution than ranchers. Stiffer penalties for violators was ranked as having higher potential as a solution by ranchers than by hunters. Hunters and ranchers agreed that better communication between the two groups has high potential as a possible solution to hunter/rancher conflicts.
It is important to identify possible solutions that hunters and ranchers feel have no potential to resolve conflicts. Choices that hunters rank as having no potential as a solution include shorter hunting seasons, longer hunting seasons, and more involvement by state and federal agencies. Choices that ranchers feel have no potential as possible solution to conflicts are shorter hunting seasons, longer hunting seasons, and more involvement by state and federal agencies. More game wardens and less involvement by state and federal agencies were ranked by hunters and ranchers as having low potential as a possible solution.
Hunters and ranchers were asked a series of questions relating to trends in big game populations, hunting pressure, and access. The survey also contained questions pertaining to the importance of private lands and agriculture to wildlife and their habitats. Hunters and ranchers responding to the survey believe deer and elk populations have increased in the last five years in Montana. Fifty-six percent of the hunters and 68% of the ranchers feel deer populations have increased, while 50% of the hunters and 68% of the ranchers believe that elk populations have increased. Pronghorn antelope populations were viewed differently by hunters and ranchers. Hunters opinions on pronghorn antelope populations were split, with 30% of the hunters responding that antelope populations have increased, and 30% of the hunters responded that antelope have decreased. Forty-three percent of the ranchers feel antelope populations have increased in the last five years.
Hunters and ranchers responses were similar when asked about hunting pressure and access to private lands. Eighty-four percent of the hunters and 69% of the ranchers stated that hunting pressure has increased in Montana in the last five years. In contrast to this, 78% of the hunters and 66% of the ranchers stated that access to private lands in Montana has decreased in the last five years.
Hunters and ranchers were asked to rate the effect private lands and agriculture have on wildlife habitat. Their choices were very positive, positive, no effect, negative and very negative. Seventy -three percent of the hunters and 92% of the ranchers rated private lands and agriculture as having a positive or very positive effect on wildlife and their habitat.
The last question on the survey asked hunters and ranchers who they felt represented them on hunter/rancher related issues. Forty-seven percent of the hunters responding to the survey stated they represent themselves or have no representation in hunter/rancher related issues. Ranchers responded that 57% were represented by a producer group of some kind in these issues.
The non-respondent survey was not different between hunters and ranchers who responded to the written survey and those telephoned during the non-respondent survey. Non-respondent data was not combined with the mail response data. Telephone data was only used to test for differences between respondents and non-respondents of the mail survey.
Implications for Ranchers and Hunters
Hunters and ranchers indicating there were conflicts between the groups ranked driving off roads and trespassing as major problems. In a survey of wildlife administrators’ throughout the United States, researchers found that trespassing and property damage were major problems landowners faced. It is important to identify issues that both groups feel are no problem, especially when looking to identify common ground issues between the groups. Issues that could be important for wildlife managers’ focus are those that hunters and ranchers feel very differently about. This survey found these issues to include; damage to property by hunters, damage to roads, too little access, unclear property postings, and negative public statements. Many of these areas of conflict can be resolved through improved communication between the groups.
The identification of conflicts may be important, but often hunter and rancher opinions to solutions to conflicts are disregarded. It is important to realize that people involved in conflicts have possibly thought of ways to resolve the problem.
Literature rarely focuses on positive aspects of hunter/rancher relations. One study proposed that hunters and landowners can work out conflicts through better communication and education. A New Mexico study reported that most hunters and ranchers had a sincere desire to improve relationships.
Responding hunters and ranchers ranked better communication between groups and greater consideration and appreciation of the other group as two of their top three solutions. Both of these potential solutions require more communication and education for both groups. Solutions which hunters and ranchers recognized as having little potential to resolve conflicts include shorter hunting seasons, longer hunting seasons, and more involvement by state and federal agencies. Both hunters and ranchers indicated that changes in present management of hunting seasons is not a positive solution to resolving conflicts.
Hunters and ranchers both agree that hunting pressure has increased in the last five years. The popularity of hunting continues to grow, especially in the Western United States. As hunting pressure increases, there is an increased demand for access for hunters. Both hunters and ranchers report that access to private land for hunting has decreased in the last five years. Other researchers have claimed that decreases nationwide in the public’s participation in hunting could be blamed on decreased access to land.
Private land provides important habitat for wildlife species throughout Montana. Hunters and ranchers agree that private land has a positive effect on wildlife in Montana. Most large blocks of private land that provide habitat for big game are also under some kind of agricultural management. Both hunters and ranchers responded that agriculture in Montana has a positive effect on wildlife. It is important to recognize that both groups appreciate private property and agriculture and its effects on wildlife and wildlife habitat. This identifies an important common ground issue between the two groups.
In order to promote positive ideas and educate hunters and ranchers, ideas must be widely and clearly disseminated to the public. Forty-seven percent of the hunters responding to the survey believe they represent themselves or have no representation on hunter/rancher related issues. In contrast to this, 57% of the ranchers believe they are represented by a producer group (i.e., Montana Stockgrowers, Farm Bureau or Montana Wool Growers) on hunter/rancher related issues. This gives ranchers an advantage on being more educated on issues and events which could effect both groups. Hunter groups need to build stronger ties with both the hunting and ranching communities if conflicts are going to be alleviated in the future.
This study points out some important information about Montana hunters and ranchers. Results indicate that hunter and rancher opinions in areas of possible conflict and solutions are similar. This information could be used to establish common ground issues between the groups and help promote the idea of hunters and ranchers working together on wildlife issues. One key point of this study is the issue of representation, better representation by both groups is a vital link to establishing better communication between Montana hunters and ranchers.
A one year survey was developed to identify conflicts and solutions to conflicts between hunters and ranchers. A questionnaire was mailed to randomly selected groups of 1000 hunters and 989 ranchers in Montana. One-third of the questionnaire was different for the two groups and consisted of questions relating to background information. Two-thirds of the questionnaire was identical between the groups and presented questions related to perceived problems and solutions, big game populations, importance of private and agricultural land to wildlife and hunter/rancher representation. Thirty-five percent of the hunters and 42% of the ranchers responded to the survey. The top three conflicts between hunters and ranchers as identified by hunters were too little access to private land, driving off roads, and trespassing. The top three solutions selected by hunters were greater consideration and appreciation by ranchers, better communication between groups and better boundary identification. The top three problems identified by ranchers were driving off roads, trespassing and too many hunters. The top three solutions selected by ranchers were stiffer penalties for violators, better communication between groups, and greater consideration and appreciation by hunters. Both hunters and ranchers ranked driving off roads and trespassing in their top three problems and ranked better communication and greater consideration and appreciation in their top three solutions. Hunters and ranchers have different (P<0.01) views of who represents them in hunter/rancher related issues. Fifty percent of the hunters responding believe they represent themselves or have no representation; whereas, 62% of the ranchers responding indicated they are represented by livestock producer groups. Results of this survey indicate that hunters and ranchers have similar concerns and better communication will help alleviate conflicting interests.
The objective of this study was to identify perceived problems and possible solutions between hunters and ranchers in Montana.
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