Hunting provides big boost for Montana’s economy

Montana mule deer buck
Photo credit: Getty Images

Hunting is huge for Montana. Over the next five weeks of the general big game season, an estimated 200,000 rifle hunters will take to the field, and will help bolster the local economy in a major way.

This time of year draws people to many different places in Montana, and the influx of out-of-town cash makes a big difference in small communities.

James Stevenson, manager of the Western 8 Motel in Ashland, says that his motel will almost have reached capacity over the next five weeks.

“We do have a pretty good hunting season here in Ashland,” he told the Billings Gazette, attracting hunters from as far away as Missoula and Wisconsin.

Ashland is located on the periphery of the largest block of public land in southeastern Montana, making it a popular base for many hunters.

Yet lodging establishments are not the only entities benefitting from the deluge of hunters. Cafes, gas stations and grocery stores also get a boost from the estimated $204.5 million that deer and elk hunters spend. When you throw in other hunters — from archers to those hunting antelope — and that number increases to a whopping $288 million.

Of course, that pales in comparison to the estimated $3.47 billion that non-residents spent in Montana last year, according to an Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research study, but most of that money ends up in Western Montana, in areas nearest to Glacier and Yellowstone national parks.

Hunting season, in stark contrast, draws a number non-residents to eastern Montana towns.

“We’re always looking forward to the hunting season,” exclaimed Annette Thomas, who manages the Hilltop Cafe in Jordan. “Opening weekend of the hunting season is pretty big.”

The town of Jordan is located south of the public lands that encompass Fort Peck Reservoir. It’s in the hub of Garfield County, which only has about 1,300 residents as it is, making tourism a critical factor for small businesses.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that in 2011, the sporting goods industry devoted to hunting generated $38.3 billion in sales and helped provide 680,000 jobs. The number of hunters 16 years and older was measured at 13.7 million.

The agency had also found that between 2006 and 2011, hunting participation had grown 9%. In recent years, new research has found, that growth rate has seemed to level off.

Yet Montana continues to have the highest per capita rate of resident hunters, with about 19% of those 16 years and older. This season, Montana has sold more than 156,200 resident hunting licenses and 29,000 nonresident hunting licenses. These numbers are similar to previous years.

“We usually expect about half of the hunters to be out there on opening weekend,” or roughly 100,000, stated Tom Palmer of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Hunters who harvest will also provide a boost for meat processors and taxidermists. Sporting good stores also see their fare share of business.

“Living in Montana, hunting is such a big part of what so many people enjoy,” maintains Chuck McKenzie of Big Bear Sports Center in Great Falls.

Camping equipment is especially profitable.

“Camping is a huge part of hunting in the fall,” McKenzie affirms, whether that means a new sleeping bag or a gas cooking stove.

Though McKenzie would not reveal how much of his company’s sales are generated from hunting, he did say that hunting-related purchases make for a solid amount of his stores’ sales each year.

Yet hunting does more than just provide economic stimuli.

The sale of hunting licenses makes up the vast majority of funding for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which uses the money to manage the state’s wildlife.

Hunting has also shown to be one of the best strategies of controlling wildlife populations. When a species becomes overpopulated, the animal becomes more susceptible to starvation, competition, and disease, which can all lead to massive die-offs. Harvesting wildlife also helps prevent the number of animals that destroy ranchers’ and farmers’ crops.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, hunting provides individuals a chance to bond. There is nothing like being out in the field, immersing yourself in nature and connecting with the wildlife. Sharing that experience can help bring family, friends, and even strangers closer together.

Annette Thomas says that her family has already taken four elk during the archery season. They donated some of the meat to family and friends.

“I just love being out there getting that close to them,” she exclaimed, noting that her son was with her to range-find the distance of the spike bull she harvested.

Hunting season also provides an opportunity for urban hunters to connect with rural ranchers and farmers who provide access to their lands, helping bridge the gap between two distinct cultures. Some of these hunters return to the same grounds every year, allowing them to form a strong relationship with the landowners.

“It’s Montana’s World Series, at a fraction of the cost,” added FWP’s Palmer. “It’s a celebration of our culture and our history — a gift that we enjoy every year.”


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