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Public lands hunting is changing, crowding some areas. We looked into why

Forest Service land in southeastern Idaho.
Madelyn Beck
Mountain West News Bureau
Forest Service land in southeastern Idaho.

Mark Olsen won’t be hunting this year.

“It's simply not worth it,” he said.

Olsen is a life-long hunter and retiree living in Nampa, Idaho.

He says it’s not worth it because people are crowding his hunting spot on public land, and practicing poor etiquette – not keeping their distance or not checking in with neighbors.

He has a disability, and a special permit to hunt beside the road, so unfortunately he can’t hike much farther to escape new people.

The situation is disappointing for him because it’s the big thing he looks forward to every year.

“That's our cookie for the year for being good, for getting out of bed and going to work,” he said. “It's not necessarily about killing something, although putting meat in the freezer is a big deal. It's about reconnecting with the planet, reconnecting with the earth, reconnecting with God.”

In his neighborhood, you can hear the incessant beeping and hammering of construction going on in several directions. It’s almost as if he’s being crowded out of his home, too.

“About five years ago, the entire ambiance of the valley changed. The way people treat each other, the way they talk to each other,” he said.

While more people are moving in, numbers of active hunters with elk and deer tags haven’t been going up nearly as fast across our region, according to a review of state statistics. Tag numbers are generally based on animal populations.

Man stands in his grassy backyard with a green shed and camping chair in the background.
Madelyn Beck
Mountain West News Bureau
Mark Olsen stands in his yard in Nampa, Idaho.

In Idaho, for example, between 2016 and 2021, deer tag sales decreased by 8%, and the number of elk tags only increased 4.6%. In states like Wyoming, Utah and Montana, estimated active hunter numbers for both elk and deer decreased over that time.

Regardless, the hunting landscape is changing around the Mountain West, and two trends in particular might help explain why some hunters' favorite grounds are feeling less of a secret these days.

One is digital mapping: more people are finding new slices of public land to hunt.

Another reason is changes on private land. That’s either because ranches don’t want to deal with hunters, or because they’ve sold their property.

“I have never seen so many no trespassing signs and red paint in my whole life. Places where people have been welcomed for decades are no longer welcome,” Olsen said.

Fewer private places to hunt can push people onto neighboring public lands.

So the Mountain West News Bureau analyzed both of those possibilities and whether this could be a larger problem in the West.

Mapping public lands

There are more digital maps of public land than ever before.

That’s thanks to a nation-wideboom in GPS mapping technologies, which range from hiking apps like AllTrails to more specific public land mapping software like Missoula-based onX, which caters to hunters and explorers alike.

These kinds of technologies inspire more exploration because sometimes public land parcels can be hard to find without them. Plots of federally managed lands are often laid out in grid patterns across the West, and some squares of accessible land are far-flung.

And there could soon be even more digital maps, thanks to the MAPland Act, which was signed into law this summer. It requires public land agencies to digitize and standardize mapping data so the public can easily use it.

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch helped introduce it, and said in a press release, “Digitizing publicly available records will end the days of reaching a trailhead only to find it is already closed for the season or being unsure where an access point is located. It will also help reduce trespassing on private land by showing new public land users where they can and cannot go.”

While it gives the public more knowledge about their public lands, it could also mean hunters travel to new places — or crowd new areas.

The Public Lands Foundation supported the MAPland Act. Don Simpson is vice president there, and he said it's good for people to know where their public lands are. He added that the mapping technology might mean more people roaming BLM and Forest Service lands in search of elk and deer, but it could also help spread those hunters out.

“It's probably relieving the pressure in other areas that might have been too crowded to go to. So, you know, there are some real benefits to that,” he said.

But he said this formal mapping process will likely take years, especially as the Bureau of Land Management is still significantly understaffed. He added that many areas of public land are still impossible to access, completely surrounded by private land.

In that way, more accessible areas near towns may get even more traffic as people find them — as many didduring the pandemic.

So mapping could be one reason Olsen sees more people at his spot.

What about private land? 

Changes to hunting availability on private lands is a lot harder to calculate.

There is one public metric in some states, though, called “walk-in acres.” Those are programs involving private landowners signing an agreement with the state to allow hunting.

Those acres have gone down significantly in some states, like New Mexico and Utah. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources said it went from 125,000 acres in 2017 to about 65,000 acres now – partially because of regional issues nearly every Westerner is contending with: land sales and development.

“Some of that (acreage) was discontinued in the program because of ownership changes, and some of the property was developed by the landowner and is no longer able to be hunted on,” Utah Division of Wildlife Resources spokesperson Faith Jolley said in a statement.

Western land sales aren’t confinedto Utah, and many more have taken place on hunter-friendly properties that never had a formal agreement with the state.

In Idaho for example, walk-in acreage went up, but there is still evidence that land sales are pushing more hunters out.

“We are seeing in this state some turnover of those large traditional ranches, as in other states,” said Roger Phillips, a spokesperson with Idaho Fish and Game.

“And I don't want to stereotype a new buyer, but it's a new person coming in. So when those old relationships are lost, there's certainly the possibility that folks who used to hunt on that property aren't going to have that opportunity anymore.”

Phillips says his agency is aware of the crowding hunters are facing, and that many now see public land hunting as the pinnacle of the sport. He added that he also knows how just a few more hunters in a hunting area can make a big difference.

“Depending on what you're hunting for, it doesn't take very many before you say, ‘Gee, there's a lot of people out here!’ And sometimes it's just one other hunter,” he said.

There have long been complaints about more trash or poor etiquette, according to Phillips, but the agency is looking into crowding issues.

Specifically, it’s working with the University of Idaho to survey hunters and find out where things are getting cramped. And in the last year, the agency has limited where out-of-staters can hunt deer.

“We heard a lot of complaints about them really concentrating in certain areas. So what our commission did was spread those tags out and made them only good for one hunting unit for non residents,” Phillips said.

So out-of-state tags no longer allow deer hunting anywhere in Idaho. And for elk, Idaho Fish and Game capped out-of-state tags in certain areas.

Of course, out-of-state versus resident hunters is its own issue. According to data from states like Wyoming and Montana, out-of-state hunters do have a higher kill rate for elk and deer, possibly because they spend more to make a long trip worth it, like hiring guides or getting better equipment.

Outdoor groups including the New Mexico Wildlife Federation and New Mexico Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers found that out-of-staters there are getting about 35% of tags in that state, aggravating some resident hunters.

Utah estimates around 10% of its elk and deer tags go to out-of-staters (though the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources states it doesn’t track that data and couldn’t provide specific numbers).

Meanwhile in Montana, that’s closer to 24% of elk and deer tags going to out-of-staters. And in Wyoming, state data shows about 30% of deer licenses to out-of-staters compared to about 20% for elk (while most states’ data tallies “tags” sold, Wyoming shows licenses for each animal).

Colorado data from 2021 shows 38% of elk tags went to out-of-staters, while 23% of deer tags went to them.

But, anecdotally, resident and out-of-state hunters are both moving around, and concentrating in certain spots.

Sometimes that can mean more garbage or failing to check in with other hunters nearby, which can be dangerous.

Back in Nampa, Olsen has this advice for anyone entering a new hunting area.

“Talk to the people that are already there because communication is essential. That way nobody gets shot and nobody is doubling up on each other. And please, please don't set up 75 yards from me expecting me to call your animals in for you,” he said.

When asked if he’ll ever hunt again with the new crowding, Olsen said, “I can't make that particular determination right now because like I said, that's my cookie for the year. That's what I look forward to.”

He just hopes fish and game agencies can limit hunting in certain areas, so there’s less pressure on game, and more open space for people like him. Even if that means he doesn’t get a tag every year.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Madelyn Beck was Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau.

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