In a quiet computer lab in Stone Hall on the University of Montana campus, Nicole Bealer and three other members of UM’s Backcountry Hunters & Anglers student chapter gathered around a single monitor to watch the House Wildlife Committee hear a bill that targets nonresident college students who hunt.
Bealer is the current president of UM BHA and is graduating from the wildlife biology program next month.
“This year has been my victory lap as president,” said Bealer. This past month, she tackled advocacy in Helena for the second time.
April 13, Bealer provided testimony over Zoom against Montana Senate Bill 533, which would have eliminated discounted licensing for non-resident students and reduced their hunting opportunity to just two weeks per year.
In 2021, the Montana state legislature passed House Bill 647, which established a system of discounted student hunting licenses for out-of-state students who qualified by being enrolled full-time in Montana college and from a state that offers reciprocity to Montanans studying there. Bealer testified as a proponent of this bill. SB 533 however, would have effectively repealed these discounted rates, which allowed hundreds of students in the state to hunt.
Although the hearing was in the Capitol in Helena, Bealer participated in the House of Representatives Fish, Wildlife, and Parks standing committee hearing via Zoom.
“I help my fellow wildlife students learn to hunt through mentorship programs to help them connect with the landscape and understand wildlife management in a new way. . . [this bill] will remove meaning from the lives of students who then won’t have the opportunity to participate in Montana’s hunting heritage,” said Bealer in her testimony.
According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, there were only 284 discounted deer, elk, and antelope tags purchased by students in 2022. Comparing this to 220,000 hunters in the state of Montana that year, “Getting rid of those 280 college students is not really changing the number of hunters in the state,” Bealer said, “but it is making a really big difference for those particular students.”
Through BHA, Bealer is specifically involved in the Montana Hunter Mentorship program, which would directly be threatened if this bill is passed.
Montana Hunter Mentorship, hosted by UM BHA, is an annual multi-weekend program where hunting mentors and mentees are matched to learn to hunt and harvest western big game. This program also focuses on fair chase, ethical harvest, and other conservation values and advocacy.
“We have some resources that we do allocate towards providing licenses for some students, but those resources are going to be stretched super thin if [SB 533] passes,” Bealer said. “We might be able to buy one license.”
Bealer, a Texas native, did not hunt prior to moving to Montana for college. “Growing up, I was vaguely interested in the idea of hunting, but in Texas where I lived the version of hunting that I saw or heard about was sitting in your blind on a private ranch in front of your deer feeder . . . and that way didn’t really inspire me very much.”
“I started to get to know a very different version of the hunting community in the West,” Bealer said. “Much more fair chase, much more about connecting with the landscape and the experience.”
Between her junior and senior years of high school, Bealer was an intern for Colorado Parks and Wildlife where she worked on a mule deer research project based out of Salida, Colorado.
According to Bealer, many of her coworkers were hunters. “I started to get to know a very different version of the hunting community in the West,” Bealer said. “Much more fair chase, much more about connecting with the landscape and the experience.”
Bealer’s involvement with this project led her to choose a degree in wildlife biology along with the influence of her father, who is an avid fisherman and wildlife enthusiast.
When she arrived at the University of Montana, Bealer began attending Backcountry Hunters & Anglers meetings with the intention of making friends that were hunters, not hunting, herself. However, UM BHA awarded her the Rebecca Romero Legacy Hunting Award, which funds a non-resident hunting license for selected new hunters.
“I think that the mentorship side of things has always been really important to me because it had such a big impact on my life…I wouldn’t be a hunter without the impacts of BHA mentorship.”
“I definitely did not expect to be hunting the Fall of my freshman year…but I was connected with a lot of resources through the BHA chapter and went out with a group of guys with BHA,” Bealer said. “We went out opening weekend and I killed a deer on opening day and it was great…I was super sold.”
Bealer said, “I think that the mentorship side of things has always been really important to me because it had such a big impact on my life…I wouldn’t be a hunter without the impacts of BHA mentorship.”
To Bealer, the most rewarding part of her service to BHA has been mentoring new hunters and creating new conservation advocates. This past Fall, she guided three new hunters to their first big game harvests. According to her, it’s all “coming full circle.”
Fall is the prime time to be a hunter and angler. Bealer said, “If it were a Fall day, you could do like a ‘cast n’ blast.’ Float, fish, also bring your shotgun, shoot some ducks or some grouse.” Her perfect day would start at one of Missoula’s many breakfast joints, probably, The Breakfast Club, and end with an evening concert at Kettlehouse Amphitheater on the banks of the Blackfoot River.
According to Bealer, Missoula is “this awesome mix of not annoyingly large, but big enough to have all of the fun downtown restaurants and music scene… and then it's surrounded in all directions by super cool wild landscapes.”
Conveniently for Bealer, it is also where Backcountry Hunters & Anglers national headquarters are located, just a few miles from campus.
Backcountry Hunters & Anglers is a national grassroots organization that advocates for North America’s public lands and waters. According to their mission statement, BHA “values the traditions and heritage our wild lands, waters and wildlife sustain and we are driven to protect our wild places.”
Through legislative action, stakeholder collaboration, and work with land management agencies, BHA advocates for hunters and anglers and the resources they use.
BHA’s first collegiate club began at the University of Montana. 10 years later, Bealer is stepping down as UM BHA’s President after 3 years of serving the club.
Kylie Schumacher, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Collegiate Coordinator, witnessed Bealer’s arch from freshman member to senior president.
“It has been super cool to watch Nicole progress from when I first met her, as a Romero recipient, new hunter, eager to learn . . . to what she was in her last year as a club leader where she is the club president, running hunter mentorship, she serving as a mentor, hunting in the woods by herself,” Schumacher said. “She went from one extreme to another in the span of, like, a couple years maybe.”
Schumacher witnessed both Bealer’s success with HB 647 and SB 533.
"Once you have more of an established, functioning club, you start to pull in the advocacy piece and she’s done a really great job of pulling that into the UM club,” Schumacher said. She said Bealer has exemplified what a club leader should be.
Bealer, in addition to advocating in Helena, is involved in research on campus. On April 21, Bealer presented “Influences of Bottom-up and Top-down Factors in Body Fat in Female Elk” at the UM Conference of Undergraduate Research.
In her presentation, Bealer highlighted research that she conducted on the Ya Ha Tinda elk herd in the Canadian Rockies; analyzing factors that affect female elk body condition such as grizzly bear predation, calf survival rates, and forage quality.
Bealer conducted this research under the advising of Mark Hebblewhite, a researcher and professor of wildlife biology.
Hebblewhite’s lab is Bealer’s favorite location on campus. She said, “It’s very homey. I love the espresso machine… and I love my lab mates and they’re so fun and such inspiring people that I admire and like being around. I’m getting very sad about leaving the Hebblewhite Lab.”
Shortly, Bealer will be continuing her career in wildlife biology as an elk research technician for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. She will be coordinating field operations for research projects across the state, including the Integrated Carnivore and Elk project in the Northwestern part of the state.
Bealer’s efforts at the Capitol were successful. On April 14, SB 533 was tabled in Committee, and for the time being, the discounted licenses to qualified non-resident full-time college students will continue. Hopefully, this continues to create new conservation advocates who follow in Bealer’s path.