Preparing for Hunting Season: Ethics 101

Published 2023-08-20

By Sarah Davies Tilt, Executive Director of One Montana

Montana has a rich, diverse history of hunting for community, subsistence, and resource management. Today’s hunters tend to be dedicated conservationists and deeply connected to nature. Hunting serves many different roles from being a challenging recreational activity and immersing ourselves in nature to keeping us connected to our heritage and providing healthy protein for our families. We are lucky to have a tremendous amount of public access and vast, beautiful places to recreate. When out hunting it is not uncommon to encounter individuals utilizing the same amazing space as us for hiking, running, mountain biking, horseback riding, motorized use, and more.

These encounters are important and hunters have a responsibility to help educate non-hunters about the important role that hunting plays in conservation, wildlife management, and our cultural heritage—it is a link between the land, wildlife, and the hunter. Hunters generally use as much of the animal as possible, letting little go to waste. They fill the freezer to sustain their families and for many, this is an important economic choice. The stories associated with these meals make them even more special. More people are also becoming interested in hunting because of local food movements or a desire to be part of the Montana community they have moved to.

For the last 6 years, I have had the pleasure of helping to run the Montana Master Hunter Program (MHP), a unique program that is fostering important dialogue about private land management, living with wildlife, and ethical behavior. The MHP seeks to educate a more ethical and effective hunter that can work with landowners and help them with their wildlife management goals and create ambassadors and mentors for hunting, conservation, and wildlife. The program expands awareness of conservation challenges and the important work private landowners do to support our public wildlife and resources.

Our public and private lands are one of Montana’s most valuable assets protecting water quality and quantity, and providing wildlife habitat, and connectivity to our public lands. Our efforts to improve relationships between sportsmen and landowners and build a community of advocates for our land and wildlife are helping to change minds and create common ground.

We also believe that more educated, ethical, and effective hunters help to elevate the general opinion of hunting. With traditions that stretch back generations, it is critical for hunters to know how to represent themselves and this tradition in the best possible way. Many attacks on hunting have come because of poor choices hunters have made. The MHP brings all students to a common starting place regarding ethics and encourages students to elevate their traditions.

All recreational users have responsibilities on our trails to pick up trash and waste, leave no trace, and generally leave things better. We also have a responsibility to each other and the resource. Hunters hike, ride bikes, and fish, among other activities and most of us share the same values. And, as hunters, we are ambassadors for hunting and voices to help others understand the culture and importance of hunting for our wildlife management, and to put healthy food on the table.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when sharing public trails this fall.

Be Prepared.

Make sure you have the correct license and tags for the animal you plan to hunt. You can find a list of license providers near you on the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) website or use the online licensing system.

Make sure you understand state rules and regulations related to hunting, such as the seasons you’re allowed to hunt with a bow or rifle.

Get some practice before the season starts. Know your gun and your ammo and understand your most effective shooting distance.

Plan ahead for a successful hunt and know how you’ll pack your harvested animal out safely.

Respect landowners and private property.

Many private landowners steward their lands to support wildlife, and they often provide access for hunting. If you are accessing lands through Block Management, you are hunting on private land. Please don’t leave waste of any kind or drive off designated roads. Park in designated spots. When you come upon a gate, make sure to leave it as you found it –open or closed.

Even when you are hunting strictly on public land, you’re likely to come across private land in some place or other. Respect private land by staying off of it unless you’re granted access. Montana FWP has a great hunt planning tool that helps you understand the boundaries between public and private land. Or, you can use an app like onX Hunt, Basemap, or goHUNT to monitor what land you’re on at all times.

Communicate and develop relationships with landowners and managers. If you want to request access to private land, establish a relationship with the landowner well in advance of hunting season and offer to help out with ranch projects in exchange for access. After accessing any land, write a thank you note to show your appreciation. Read more about “How to Access Private Land & Work With Landowners” on the Master Hunter Program website.

These positive interactions will help ensure hunting access for generations to come.

Be friendly to fellow hunters and recreationists.

This one is so simple! When you come across another hunter or recreationist, say hello. I have heard that many other users are often puzzled or even fearful when they encounter a hunter on a trail. We encourage you to say howdy and ask how their hunt went, or what they are hunting for, or offer a helping hand with packing out an animal. Whether you are a hunter or a hiker, a little kindness goes a long way to making a better experience for everyone and might help ease any apprehensions.

Remember that public land is public, and you may encounter other hunters, even at “your spot.” If you find your favorite hunting area is already occupied, be prepared to take a new path and explore new ground—who knows, it could be a great new experience.

Honor the animals.

Before you head out, know your effective shooting range so you can take smart shots. Don’t take shots that are beyond your capabilities. Strive for a quick, clean kill and avoid leaving a wounded animal in the wild.

Use a highly ethical and fair chase approach to pursue all game. This means approaching any wild game animal in a manner that doesn’t give you an improper or unfair advantage over the game animals. For example, make sure you’re approaching an animal on foot, rather than shooting from a vehicle. Treat both game and non-game animals ethically and report any game violations you see while hunting.

Treat your game well on its road to the kitchen, and it will treat you well on the table. Keep your game clean and cool, field dress as soon as convenient, and ensure game is dry before freezing.

Protect the environment.

Practice Leave No Trace principles by packing out any trash, clothing, gear, and as much of the animal as possible if you harvest one. Go one step further and pick up any trash you see, even if it isn’t yours.

With the dry Montana climate, fire safety is critical. Know how to safely light, maintain and extinguish a fire. Make sure any fire you make is completely out before you leave it. In addition, secure any vehicle chains so that they don’t drag on the ground while you’re driving, and don’t park over tall grass.

Give back by volunteering or giving to a local nonprofit that provides opportunities for you to enjoy our wild places. Every user gets outside for different reasons and we all have a responsibility to take care of these resources for future generations to have similar experiences.

If you’re interested in diving deeper into hunting training, land stewardship, and ethics, consider participating in One Montana’s Master Hunter Program or completing the Hunter-Landowner Stewardship program through Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. Also, check out MT FWP’s It’s Up to Us Campaign.

About the Author

Sarah Tilt is the Executive Director of One Montana, a nonprofit working to support private land stewardship and working lands, sustain our cultural heritage, and connect our urban and rural communities. One Montana protects the people and places we love and explores ethical use issues that all recreational users need to know about. One Montana’s Master Hunter Program is creating a network of skilled hunters that hunt together, learn from each other, and are advocates for Montana’s land and wildlife. Apply beginning October 1,

Header photo: Denver Bryan