Between Ekalaka and the South Dakota border, among the chalk buttes, open range and isolated pine forests of eastern Montana, the O’Connor Ranch has had its hands full. Ty O’Connor and his family run OCC Legacy Cuts, a ranch-to-table online meat retailer. Their main focus lately has been opening their USDA organic certified meat processing facility, which was kickstarted with the help of a $450,000 grant through the American Rescue Plan Act. But, besides those products, they’re looking to monetize a commodity that is heating up across Montana: access.

Last December, the O’Connors listed their 50,000 acres on LandTrust.com, a platform similar to Airbnb, but designed for landowners who want to capitalize on the recreation value of their land. In previous years, the O’Connors had done this informally on their own. Hunters who discovered their ranch through word of mouth would pay to hunt their property, which is known as a “day lease” or “trespass fee.” With LandTrust to do the advertising, scheduling and billing, the O’Connors hope to streamline the process and create more opportunities for their ranch.

LANDTRUST.COM

LandTrust is a small tech startup based in Bozeman that contracts with landowners across the country. The founder, Nic De Castro, said in an email interview that he grew up hunting and fishing with his father in Southern California, took a youthful fly-fishing trip to Rock Creek outside of Missoula, and moved to Bozeman in 2016.

He spent the early part of his career in marketing and advertising tech start-ups in New York City, and discovered the growing platform Airbnb as he traveled for work. He realized he would never manage his apartment as a short-term rental on his own, he said, but Airbnb’s services made it easy to rent out his house when he was away.

He says he was attracted to Bozeman by the outdoor recreation opportunities and the area’s burgeoning tech industry. He hunted and fished on public land, but realized he would gladly pay to access private land if there were a model to do that. His experience with Airbnb and hunting combined into an idea that landowners would open their properties to the public if there was a service that simplified the process and made it worthwhile.

“The aspect that landowners like about LandTrust is that it keeps them 100% in control.”

LandTrust.com founder Nic De Castro

“That’s the moment where I catalyzed my years of hosting & being a guest on Airbnb and this clear marketplace problem of recreational land access together which would eventually become LandTrust,” he said.

He and a partner started pitching investors, and on July 1, 2019, he left his consulting job and started working on LandTrust full-time, recruiting landowners and launching the website in October of that year. After a week he describes as “excruciating,” they got their first booking, which generated positive reviews from both parties. 

Today, LandTrust facilitates access to more than a million acres of land across the United States. De Castro was unwilling to disclose proprietary company statistics, but as of late June there were 65 Montana listings on the LandTrust website covering 390,490 acres.

De Castro describes LandTrust as a way to help keep farm and ranch families on their land while maintaining control over the land’s use. Participating landowners decide who can come and when, and can join or leave the program at will.

“The aspect that landowners like about LandTrust is that it keeps them 100% in control,” De Castro said. “They control what activities they want to list (hunting, fishing, bird watching, shed hunting, foraging, farm & ranch experiences etc.), when they want to host them, what rules guests must follow (like archery only), how much they want to charge, and who they let on their land.”

LandTrust offers access to almost 400,000 acres of private Montana land for a variety of activities, including hunting and fishing. Credit: Screenshot from LandTrust.com

LandTrust also sponsors select wildlife conservation organizations through its Conservation Partner Program. The National Deer Foundation confirmed that LandTrust has donated $12,500 to date, and Ducks Unlimited confirmed that LandTrust is making regular donations toward a $10,000 pledge. Pheasants Forever confirmed LandTrust had run advertisements in the organization’s magazine.

The price visibility on LandTrust opens a window into the access economy that was previously opaque. No public databases collect or store the cost of private day-lease transactions, or of the hundreds of access leases contracted with Montana outfitters and guides every year, which accounted for 6.5 million acres in 2018, the last year outfitters were required to submit that information to the state.

LandTrust appears to be the frontrunner in Montana of a pack of online access services. Exploreranches.com offers similar packages nationwide, but as of mid-July offered only one listing in Montana. Huntable.com, also based in Bozeman, had three listings in Montana. Airbnb lists 43 “experiences” in Montana, but nearly all are guided events, on public or private lands, and none involve hunting.

BLOCK MANAGEMENT

Prior to signing on with LandTrust, the O’Connors had their parcels enrolled in the state’s Block Management program.

Block Management is the state’s largest public hunting access program. Wildlife is publicly owned, but two-thirds of Montana’s habitat is on private land. Block Management provides access to that private land, and eases the burden on landowners with modest compensation. On most properties enrolled in Block Management, hunters can show up at a designated access point, sign their name on a slip at a registration board, and begin hunting. 

The program, however, is in trouble. Since 2011, Block Management in Montana has lost a million acres from the program, an eighth of its peak enrollment. 

The reasons for the decline are complex, and reflect the state’s changing economics, demographics and values. When the Block Management program was originally funded in 1995, payments to property owners were $10 per hunter day with an $8,000 annual cap. Each registration slip now brings landowners $13 per day, with a maximum annual payout of $25,000.

Jason Kool, the access bureau chief of Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, which administers the program, said the payout could use updating. 

“If it was $10 per hunter day when it started, the bonus should be closer to $18 a hunter day if we kept at that rate,” he said. The Legislature increased the annual cap in 2021 with House Bill 637, but the payment per hunter day remained unchanged. 

In theory, the money isn’t exchanged for access. According to a 2021 Private/Lands Public Wildlife Council report, “Payment is to offset impacts associated with allowing public hunting access including but not limited to general ranch maintenance, conservation efforts, weed control, fire protection, and road/parking-area maintenance. Payment is not for access.” (Emphasis theirs.) But as the value of access increases, there has been a shift in the understanding of what the state’s payments should do. In the debate over HB 637, Rep. Denley Loge, R-St. Regis, argued in favor of increasing the cap to keep pace with private competition for access.

“That cap, I think, is needed to keep those lands open. One of the problems we could get into is private hunting clubs. If some of those ranches [leave Block Management], they’ll get offered more money. And so this $25,000 will help keep that land open to public hunting,” he said while discussing the bill on the House floor.

The Private Lands/Public Wildlife Council is a 13-member group appointed by the governor to represent hunters, landowners and outfitters in state hunter access programs, including Block Management.

Chairman Ed Beall told Montana Free Press, “We have long been concerned with the difference between what a leased or outfitted land can bring versus the $25,000 cap on Block Management. … We have worked to increase that cap and the current rate was approved in the 2021 Legislature. … [T]he council believes that the Block Management program remains the important access program of the day and that it needs to be maintained and enhanced for the future.”

LandTrust offers access to almost 400,000 acres of private Montana land for a variety of activities, including hunting and fishing. Credit: Screenshot from LandTrust.com

As the acreage under Block Management has decreased, the number of participating landowners has stayed level. In 2011, there were 1,287 landowners in the program, and in 2020 there were 1,293. So even as the scale of the program has diminished, the complexity of working with program partners has not, and the increased payments have made each acre more expensive. In 2011, the state paid out $5 million for 8.1 million enrolled acres, about $.67 per acre. In 2020, the state paid $6.2 million for 7.16 million acres, a cost of $.86 per acre.

Revenue to pay for the program comes from a menagerie of sources, with the lion’s share coming from non-resident hunting licenses and a grant from the federal Pittman-Robertson (P-R) fund. The Pittman-Robertson Act, passed in 1937, created a nationwide 11% tax on sales of guns, ammunition and archery equipment, and disburses the money to states for use toward wildlife management and restoration. In the program’s 2019 season, the latest data available, P-R contributed a record $4.5 million of Montana Block Management’s $6.1 million in landowner payments.

“Block Management has been a good thing for hunters, but I think it’s getting overrun so much right now with people that a lot of people are looking to things more like what we are doing with LandTrust. They want a little more private hunt than being there with a bunch of people.”

Eastern Montana rancher Ty O’Connor

“Now, because of the increase in P-R and the sales of firearms, ammunition and archery equipment, agencies and fish and wildlife service right now have got all-time record collections on P-R. So, I think we’ve got more money than most agencies as a whole know what to do with,” Kool said.

While Block Management pays landowners $13 per hunter day, packages on LandTrust charge between $100-$200 for a day lease. Non-consumptive activities like hiking and birding are typically priced at $25 to $50 per day. Packages that include lodging cost more. The most spendy package currently available in Montana is a 5-day, 5-person archery hunt at the Little Belt Cattle Company, which runs $12,500.

“Block Management is a great program that opens up a lot of access around the state for hunting,” De Castro said, “and one that I’ve enjoyed using as a sportsman in the past. At the same time, Block [Management] is a government program that, at its core, trades a landowner for control of their land [and] who gets to access it in exchange for compensation. What I’ve learned from thousands of conversations with farmers & ranchers across the country is that the #1 priority for them is ALWAYS control.”

The O’Connors removed their properties from Block Management in 2019.

“Block Management has been a good thing for hunters, but I think it’s getting overrun so much right now with people that a lot of people are looking to things more like what we are doing with LandTrust. They want a little more private hunt than being there with a bunch of people.” O’Connor said.

MASTER HUNTER PROGRAM

Bill Spahr, leader of One Montana’s Master Hunter Program, has a different approach.

“The way forward is trying to restore cooperation between hunters and private landowners — helping build relationships,” he said. Block Management is a good program, he said, but he thinks the ability to sign in to a property without interacting with the owner has led to hunters taking access for granted, and not having a personal stake in maintaining good relationships.

The Master Hunter Program ran its first class in 2018. It has 237 graduates so far, and is hoping to add 85-90 to the ranks this year. The program is rigorous. It wants graduates to be exemplary representatives of the hunting community in Montana.

“[T]he biggest challenge and the biggest problem that was cited most by landowners is hunter behavior as the reason a lot of lands are being closed to access,” said One Montana Executive Director Sarah Davies Tilt. “At the same time, the state manages all of our big game through hunting. But, in order to do that, we have to have access to private lands. So we started looking at these challenges and trying to say, well, how do we really get at this challenge?” 

That’s why the program requires about 12 hours of online work, 48 hours of in-class instruction (including a shooting field day) and 24 hours for the final field instruction — 84 hours in total.

“The biggest challenge and the biggest problem that was cited most by landowners is hunter behavior as the reason a lot of lands are being closed to access.”

One Montana Executive Director Sarah Davies Tilt.

Once they complete the program, master hunter graduates are required to contribute service hours each year to renew their certification. That could include mentoring hunters, leading hunter safety classes, or attending agency or community meetings related to hunting. 

“[In] 2021, more than 50 Master Hunters provided 482 hours of combined volunteer service for 13 projects. But this number is much higher if you include programs not hosted by [the Master Hunter Program] directly. Our hunters reported 2,734.25 hours of community service and continuing education in 2021,” Tilt told MTFP.

As a result of these relationships, the Master Hunters program partners with 27 landowners across the state, representing 250,000-300,000 acres of private land, in addition to access to adjacent public sections.

If landowners move to a pay-to-play model, Spahr expresses support for private property rights and diversified income streams, but he also has a word of caution.

“I think that they need to be very careful of the privatization of wildlife,” he said.

‘TIP OF THE ICEBERG’

Bayard Black moved back from Minnesota in 2015 to operate his family ranch outside of Gallatin Gateway with his father and brother. They already had a history of providing access for charity hunts. When he found LandTrust, he saw the potential. He currently offers a suite of hunting, fishing, camping, shed hunting, mountain biking, and cross-country skiing packages on the family’s two properties. He said he appreciates that LandTrust allows users to rate each other to build the credibility of both the host and guest.

“There are some folks … who are not going to be able to get into that niche, unless they are making beaucoup bucks. So, it’s kind of bittersweet, but at the same time, I have to make money, too.”

Gallatin Gateway rancher Bayard Black

Black acknowledges the complexity involved in price-setting. On one hand, he cares about the animals and wants to see them around the ranch, so he considers the cost of hunting as a management tool to throttle back the pressure on wildlife, even as he understands that demand might make access cost-prohibitive to some.

“There are some folks … who are not going to be able to get into that niche, unless they are making beaucoup bucks. So, it’s kind of bittersweet, but at the same time, I have to make money, too,” he said.

LandTrust isn’t a big part of O’Connor Ranch operations at present, but Ty O’Connor said he could see that changing.

“As time goes on, this part of it will be a part of your operation going forward, where it could help raise a family just by the tourism portion and the hunting portion of your operation. Right now we are just on the tip of the iceberg.”

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Tait Sougstad

Tait Sougstad has written pieces for the Montana Natural History Center's Field Notes segment on Montana Public Radio, and the Montana Naturalist Magazine. He lives and works in Billings with his wife and four kids, and enjoys exploring the Beartooth Mountains and studying public land maps.