Montana has a special allure to it. An indistinguishable charm that brings about prospects of an untarnished western landscape and rich culture where people are deeply intertwined with the ecosystems around them. That was the draw for me when I began my own Montana journey back in 2017, and I think many others come for the exact same reason. Once in Montana though, where do you go? How do you find friends or a community of like-minded outdoor enthusiasts like yourself? For me, I luckily stumbled into a University of Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers club meeting during my first semester in 2017. Three years later I am now the current collegiate club president. For me, nothing has been more impactful at UM as the memories and relationships that I have made through the UM BHA club.
The impacts of UM BHA on my Montana experience have been profound, and in result, I have been deeply motivated to reciprocate the mentorship and welcoming outdoor community that UM BHA provided me.
The club’s mission is to promote the outdoors through hunting and fishing while giving students the resources and opportunities necessary to become self-sufficient outdoorsmen and women. This mission is no better reflected than through our pinnacle annual event — hunter mentorship. I still remember my first semester in Montana -- I was struggling to find my place and adjust to the university lifestyle, but those memories are all shadowed by the memory of my first Montana buck. A stud beautiful 4x4 mule deer that I was lucky enough to harvest during a hunter mentorship weekend. Without the club, I was clueless about finding places to hunt and how to navigate the regulations. The UM BHA club provided me with all the resources I needed to succeed, and while harvesting a monarch mule deer was a dream, what I love most about the club is that it’s not about the harvest success or creating a group of an elite outdoorsman. It’s all about encouraging students to experience the outdoors through the lens of hunting and fishing. That’s what ultimately led me to become president of the club some years later -- the satisfaction of watching brand new outdoorsmen and women foster a new appreciation for the outdoors.
Hunter Mentorship has grown immensely since its inception five years ago. This past fall of 2019 we hosted over 75 participants all of which embarked on an unforgettable experience full of hunting traditions. Hunter mentorship is broken up into two weekends of November every year. In summary, the name implies it all, we carefully select a cohort of mentors — composed of experienced big game hunters that range from students and professors to community members all keen to pass down their knowledge to a new hunter. Prior to late November we pair these experienced hunters with their mentee for the weekend and encourage them to communicate and plan out their hunt, to ensure a smooth and enjoyable experience. Although the Hunter mentorship weekend is where the action takes place, the work for UM BHA leadership starts many months before, setting up free private hunter safety classes, helping students navigate the regulations and purchase tags, taking new shooters to the gun range, and helping students find a rifle to hunt with. Our club is committed to breaking down these barriers and guiding them through all the necessary steps. In an effort to alleviate the most significant barrier to new hunters, cost, we have proudly established a memorial scholarship in memory of one of our members, Rebecca Romero, who tragically passed away in the summer of 2018. Since the creation of the scholarship we have given out seven awards in her honor to pay for out of state students hunting and fishing licenses.
While many new hunters use these weekends to experience their first big game hunt we encourage all students to participate even those not hunting. Every year roughly ⅓ of the participants who come out are observers -- and often what they take away is of equal or greater value than the hunts themselves. Hunting is not only an expression of our American heritage and traditions, but it is also the pilot flame that keeps our wildlife populations and wildernesses wild. Students from UM, even those in the wildlife biology program, surprisingly fail to see the connection between hunting and conservation. This is a key message that we showcase during hunter mentorship. By sharing special moments by the campfire, listening to wildlife professionals discuss the role of hunting, and ultimately setting foot afield — the result is often a transformative experience that opens their minds to the crucial link between consumptive use and conservation of wildlife and habitat in the United States. A tenant of the North American model of wildlife conservation that is best understood through an experience like Hunter Mentorship.
The most recent hunter mentorship, Fall of 2019, was wildly successful in more ways than just introducing students to the ideologies of hunting. We had four brand new hunters harvest their first big game animal and an additional six other more experienced hunters harvest an animal while guiding a future-hunter/observer. The first weekend I was fortunate enough to help new hunter and wildlife biology junior, Jack St. John harvest his first buck, a big rutting Montana mule deer. Jack was also a recipient of our Rebecca Romero scholarship and prior to coming to Montana felt a lacking connection with the outdoors having been raised in urban Chicago. In one of Jack’s scholarship responses he said, “Every hunter I’ve met has a deep connection with the natural world, and as a wildlife biology major, I feel driven to experience this same connection. The relationship between man and nature was almost nonexistent for me growing up, especially compared to what is typical here in Montana. Last year I began the process of creating that relationship by joining the school BHA group and the Wildlife Society chapter. I have a very vivid memory of my first BHA meeting, I came knowing nobody and feeling like an outcast in a room full of avid outdoorsmen with their beards, camo, and hats that fit the part. I almost didn’t come back the next week, but I pushed myself to get involved because I knew that I needed to start somewhere. Before long, I dived right in.
University of Montana journalism student Aidan Morton accompanying us as he documented the whole hunt via audio recording and produced an incredible audio story that reflects what we strive for here at UM BHA (**insert link).
The following weekend it was my turn to tote the rifle as I brought two female students afield for their first ever big game hunt. It was a privilege to pass on the knowledge I have garnered over the years to my mentees. We hiked and conversed for most the afternoon chasing mule deer does, which I held a B-tag permit for. Shortly after reaching the top of a large sweeping ridge, we spotted a group of bedded mule deer in a patch of timber -- after a slow approach, I settled into a 200 yard shot and patiently waited for an ethical shot to present itself. The doe dropped immediately and after a short wait we hiked over to witness a magnificent mule deer buck cruising through the timber chasing the other does that had scattered. The rest of the afternoon I explained and demonstrated how to break down an animal using the gutless method before we began our long pack out in the glimmering Montana sunset.
This is merely my own experiences from hunter mentorship but there are dozens of other similar stories and memories made by the other participants. As I look back, I am proud of what I was able to participate in and ultimately reciprocate to a new cohort of Montana hunters. I am certain our UM BHA club will continue to grow and gain more traction as more students are exposed to the welcoming and accommodating club that we are. Hunter Mentorship will continue to be our flagship event, and as a club, we will keep striving to provide UM students with experiences that they will remember for a lifetime.