A small donation box available to hunters will have big impacts for many hungry Montanans this year and next, with the Hunters Against Hunger program raising more than $77,000 and generating more than 5,500 pounds of meat this hunting season. Although feeding the hungry is something virtually everyone supports, a small but vocal group of critics questioned whether the free donation program encouraged hunters to take more game than they intended to personally use.
A law passed in the last Legislature allowed hunters to donate $1 or more to the program when purchasing hunting licenses. That money goes to paying meat processors for processing game meat donated and distributed to local food shares. Animals confiscated by the state are also donated to the program.
By all accounts, hunters came through, donating $77,435.
“I would definitely call the first year a success,” said Jeff Gutierrez, executive director for the Montana Food Bank Network. “We’re still getting calls and I think it went great, especially for a first-year program.”
The majority of the donated meat came through Helena, Butte, Glendive, Great Falls and Missoula, with smaller donations coming in from around the state, he said.
Hunters have long been able to donate professionally processed big game meat to food share, but until this year, hunters had to personally pay for the processing. Hunters can now donate all or part of a game animal, and can choose to donate monetarily to the processing at the time of donation as well.
With free processing now available, organizers did not know what to expect, Gutierrez said.
“We were glad we had that amount because so much was up in the air and we weren’t sure on the interest from the public,” he said.
With final numbers unavailable until January, Gutierrez estimated between $15,000 and $20,000 went to processors.
Game meat offers healthy, lean protein that because of cost is high on the list for many clients at the Helena Food Share, said Executive Director Ann Waickman. The hunters who donated to the program deserve kudos, she added.
“Game meat is something we’ve done for many years, and we have a great group of hunters in town that have been generous using their tags,” she said. “As food costs continue to rise, this program is truly helpful to the bottom line at Helena Food Share.”
Helena Food Share provides emergency food for around 1,500 families each month, serves more than 520 elementary school children through the Kid Packs program each week and distributes more than 5,000 pounds of food each day, according to its website.
“This is a huge help, but it’s a piece of the puzzle and not the answer,” Waickman said. “All of these big groups keep trying to put together the pieces they can. The folks we serve are extremely grateful.”
Donations in general play a major role in Helena Food Share’s programs, and she also thanked organizers and donators to food drives over the holiday season.
While many celebrated the program, some critics feared it could lead to hunters shooting and donating animals they had no intention of eating. An October Independent Record story drew its share of online comments opposing the program, and programs like Montana’s have received national attention from critics.
“Hunters, state and federal agencies support these programs as really just a way to make killing animals for fun palatable to the public,” said Ashely Byrne, campaign specialist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “Hunters may get their kicks from shooting innocent animals, but they should leave the deer out of it and instead volunteer in a soup kitchen.”
A vegetarian meal would offer a healthy alternative, and both hunters and non-hunters have the ability to donate time to helping the hungry, she said.
While the PETA viewpoint may stretch beyond that of many critics, some hunter advocates in Montana acknowledged conflicting feelings on how the program plays into hunter ethics.
“We did support the bill, and I think it’s a good bill, and I’m hopeful that the majority of the use for the program is for confiscated animals,” said Nick Gevock, outreach director for the Montana Wildlife Federation. “If people want to donate, what I hope people don’t do is strictly go hunting and not have any intention of eating any of their own game.”
Hunters Against Hunger has the added benefit of providing more work for local game processors, and the program needs to grow the number of processors dramatically, he said.
“There are a lot of people in Montana struggling and a lot of them really do appreciate that excellent source of protein from game,” Gevock said.
When it comes down to the motivation to donate meat, the ethics come down to the individual hunter, said Jim Posewitz of Helena Hunters and Anglers.
Posewitz has long been an authority on hunter ethics and conservation, authoring several books including “Beyond Fair Chase,” which every hunter education student in the state receives.
“The ethical line is the person that exercises this option to donate must look at their own set of assumptions before they go hunting,” he said. “If you hunted fair chase, ethically and enjoyed the experience and on top of that you share it with the needy people of your community, then that’s one set of assumptions.”
Posewitz acknowledged that some hunters may have other assumptions that could cross ethical lines but stay within the law. The vast majority simply want to help their neighbors, he said.
“I think the money donated is a sign of the personal commitment of a good number of people,” Posewitz said. “It’s not only a sign of a good hunter but also a person willing to share the health benefits of game meat.”
Despite the possibility that hunters could take more meat than they intend to personally use, the program fits well within the state’s game management goals, said Ron Aasheim, administrator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
“Our thought is, and the Legislature agrees, that people may take more than they need, but we need those people to help us as far as management,” he said.
FWP sets tag numbers based on population goals in an area. If populations grow too large, the department increases tags to give hunters an opportunity with to take more animals.
As long as hunters are staying within the law and legally tag each animal, FWP supports the donation program, Aasheim said.
“They’re able to use that protein for a good purpose and it’s apparently worked pretty smoothly,” he said.
Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or firstname.lastname@example.org