BY DAVE REESE
Thomas Baumeister knows almost every rock and tree on the land he hunts before he even sets foot on it.
Baumeister, education bureau chief for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, is what you might call a New Age hunter. Using the tools of technology, including the Internet and GPS, Baumeister is able to study the intricate topographic details of his hunting grounds long before he ever sets foot on them.
Baumeister hunts predominantly state-owned land and Bureau of Land Management land along the Rocky Mountain Front, where the land is a mixture of private, state and federal ownership. By doing his homework - long before the hunting season starts - he's able to pinpoint public hunting areas and quality hunting grounds by the time big game season rolls around Oct. 23.
"There's so much you can learn about an area without actually going there," Baumeister said in a phone interview from his Helena office. "I try to create a mental image of where I want to hunt, and you can create that image any time of year."
He's not alone in his cyber-scouting.
One hunter that he knows in Northwest Montana does the same thing - and with great success.
This hunter studies whitetail harvest records from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. These records tell only which county an animal was harvested, and when. Nothing else.
But for this cyber sleuth, it's enough of a clue to go on. Tapping into the Internet's wealth of information, this hunter tracks down aerial photos of habitat that white-tailed deer would likely use in these counties. Knowing that white-tailed deer prefer open terrain, away from roads, he identifies his hunting grounds before he even goes there. He picks out a tree from the aerial photos, and when hunting season starts he puts up a tree stand in that exact tree, photographed from miles up in space, Baumeister said.
"He always come home with a nice whitetail, what some people would call a trophy animal," Baumeister said. "I don't think he could have done that by just wandering around."
The motherlode of information about land ownership, aerial photos and maps is found at the Natural Resources Information System Web site at http://nris.mt.gov
Here's how Baumeister does his homework: He picks out aerial photos of his hunting grounds from this Internet site. Placing the computer cursor over a particular point on the aerial photo reveals the UTM coordinates that specify every point on the earth. (These UTM coordinates are what GPS units use to tell you where on earth you are.)
Comparing it side-by-side with a hard-copy 1:24,000 U.S. Geological Survey topographic map, Baumeister writes down the UTM coordinates on each of the section corners on his map. That way, he knows exactly where the land ownership boundaries are. He'll also write down UTM coordinates of campsites, streambeds and treelines. When he's in the field, he simply looks at his GPS unit and it tells him how those coordinates correspond to the map.
"Then you can focus on hunting and not have to worry about the boundaries," he said. "This approach helps me become comfortable with a new hunting area, freeing me to focus on the terrain, wildlife travel corridors and cues that help me connect with the game."
THESE SKILLS are especially useful if you plan on hunting new terrain this year. Baumeister recommends if you're going to hunt a new area, make some choices before the season starts.
To begin, decide on the type of hunt that interests you and whether you want to hunt in familiar territory or go farther afield. Do you want to hunt mule deer or elk? In that case, check the hunting regulations for clues on herd status and management objectives. Identify hunting districts that offer special permits for the big game species you're seeking.
If there's an abundance of special permits - cow permits, for instance - you can bet that the overall herd is healthy. You can also identify adjoining hunting districts and the licenses available there. This gives you the choice of applying for a special permit or hunting a bordering hunting district. Since deer and elk don't confine themselves to lines on a map, look at the bordering hunting districts that will offer similar hunting opportunities, Baumeister says.
Another way to identify a site for hunting mature mule deer bucks or bull elk is to identify areas that cater to their habitat. For mule deer or elk, you'll look for areas that are secured by steep topography, heavy forest cover or not many roads. To tighten your focus, Baumeister says, zero in on an area about one-third to one-fourth the size of an average hunting district; anything bigger than that is hard to study and hunt effectively.
Next, establish a mental picture of the area by using a Bureau of Land Management land ownership map from the BLM state office in Billings, or a local sporting goods store. Now you can study the land ownership, topography, road access, campsites, and waterways and how to access the area you've selected at different times of the hunting season.
Roads accessible in late October may be impassable by early November. You'll want to identify two or three alternate routes into the area and then get into your vehicle and drive them to be sure they are open.