- Associated Press - Sunday, March 30, 2014

BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) - Few state programs are as successful as Montana’s Block Management Program in opening up more land to give hunters more opportunity to fill their tags.

For almost 20 years, landowners have agreed to open their property to hunters in exchange for Fish, Wildlife & Parks services and a small reimbursement for wear-and-tear or damage to their property.

In 2012, the program added more than 8 million acres of public hunting grounds to the one-third of the state that is public land.

Such access is important to the average Montana hunter in a time when more people are buying property and closing it to the public. Such landowners then open their property only to outfitters and hunters who can afford to pay high admission prices.

Landowners also benefit from the program.

The Barrick Corp. has long allowed hunters to use 4,000 acres of its property south of the Golden Sunlight Mine near Whitehall.

Last year, Barrick decided to put the property into the Block Management Program mainly for the benefits: help with wildlife management, enhanced enforcement, and liability coverage in case of hunter damage or injury, said mine vice president Mark Thompson.

“It’s not about the money, although we get revenue to put back into the sportsmen’s hands,” Thompson told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1e1eX9K). “It seemed like it worked very well. I should have known we were getting more use when I had to get three more sign-in books than they gave me.”

So many hunters took advantage of the property that Barrick earned more than $10,000, which it donated to the Jefferson Valley Sportsmen Association this weekend.

The Barrick story is just one example of the win-win nature of block management that engenders such strong support from sportsmen and landowners.

So those groups were dismayed when a recent state audit turned up some problems with the program.

Their worries that the audit’s criticisms could prompt legislators to cut the program have intensified over the past three months as the legislative Environmental Quality Council has repeatedly questioned FWP representatives.

But the timing of the audit could lead to a bigger struggle because it coincides with FWP efforts to get legislators to pass license-fee increases to see its budget through the next five to 10 years.

The auditors focused on two aspects of the program: how FWP evaluates property for inclusion in block management and how landowner payments and benefits are distributed.

They listed seven categories where FWP’s management appeared to fall short.

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