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Gear library looks to break down barriers for Montana hunters

Missoula women start service that allows new hunters to borrow equipment and ‘feel really welcome in the space.’

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MISSOULA — Ada Smith didn’t own any camoe when she started hunting. Or a range finder, or decoys or turkey calls.  

The Ph.D. candidate in the University of Montana College of Forestry was fortunate to befriend a community of adult-onset hunters and mentors who lent her the gear and taught her the skills she needed to hunt. 

Among those mentors was DeAnna Bublitz, a founder of DEER Camp, a Missoula-based hunting gear library for new hunters. 

“DeAnna literally took the shirt off her back to lend me some camo in the early days,” Smith said. 

Access to gear poses a challenge for many new hunters, and Bublitz had firsthand knowledge of that after entering the world of hunting as an adult. That knowledge, coupled with a desire to give back to the hunting community, led Bublitz to form DEER Camp with co-founder Madeline Damon. 

The two met in the spring of 2020 at a women’s leadership class at the University of Montana where they developed the idea for the Missoula-based gear library with the goal of making hunting more accessible. 

“I started brainstorming ways I could give back to the hunting world because I wouldn’t be a hunter if I didn’t have friends that lent me gear and got me to this point,” Bublitz said. 

DEER Camp allows new hunters in the Missoula area to borrow clothing, packs, a variety of calls and bugles, decoys, and harnesses, among other things. Anyone who is interested in borrowing or donating gear can email or send a message to DEER Camp’s Instagram, @deercamp_mt. There is currently no charge for borrowing gear. Bublitz said she hopes to keep the gear library free or offer a sliding scale as the program grows.

The name, DEER Camp, came from researching old photos of hunting camps.

“We kept seeing this consistent image of all white older men around a fire or in a log cabin hunting,” Damon said. “There were no women or people of color, so the idea of DEER Camp is to reinvent that image and make it more inclusive and more accessible to everyone.”

Damon, a hunter since age 12, drew from her background and her experience helping new students get into hunting and fishing as a student officer for the UM chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. Bublitz brought her experience as a new hunter trying to enter the field later in life and solicited gear donations from friends and fellow hunters she met throughout her eight-year hunting career and during her time as an ambassador for the Montana Wildlife Federation. 

Bublitz said DEER Camp has received a lot of support from the hunting community across Montana through donations and partnerships. DEER Camp recently partnered with Hellgate Hunters & Anglers, which helped host a gear drive and will soon provide storage space for the gear library that is currently housed in Bublitz’s basement. 

Recruiting new hunters is a priority for many conservationists. For decades, the number of hunters has steadily dwindled, leading to concerns about a loss of conservation funding at state wildlife agencies that largely rely on the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. 

“Hunting is a really necessary activity for wildlife conservation,” said Damon, who is researching how racial and gender biases and academic publishing create gaps in wildlife management and policy. 

“We know that the number of hunters has been decreasing for years and years, and we know that the demographic composition of hunters is mainly older, white males,” Damon said. “If we really want to keep conservation funding going, we need to be more inclusive and welcoming to other hunters.”

Smith said she experienced some of the social barriers associated with the hunting world as an adult and as a female. 

“I think that the social constraints, in my mind and my experience, have been some of the biggest challenges, and then just the gear,” Smith said. “It’s expensive. You need a lot of different gear, and most people don’t have thousands of dollars right off the bat to spend.”

Understanding the social barriers and equity issues surrounding outdoor recreation activities such as hunting has been of increasing interest among scholars, including Smith. She recently completed a study, “Confidence, community and conservation: Exploring the relationship between self-efficacy and experience in female hunters” through her research at the University of Montana. 

Smith and her colleagues found that social support is important for the recruitment and retention of all female hunters, regardless of skill level or experience.

“That’s one reason why I think DEER Camp is such an important resource to make female hunters and other minority hunters feel really welcome in the space,” Smith said. 

DEER Camp has hosted various workshops such as a butchering workshop in partnership with the Missoula Urban Demonstration Project (MUD) and packing workshops held at Free Cycles in Missoula, as well as mentee-mentor meetups. 

DEER Camp will continue to host some events, but Bublitz said the focus will remain on filling the need for a gear library. 

“A lot of people do ‘learn-to-hunt’ workshops, but there wasn’t a resource for gear,” Bublitz said. 

Bublitz is currently working on expanding the library and connecting with new hunters. DEER Camp is still collecting some bigger-ticket items that hunters have requested, such as optical gear and packs.

“I just want people to know this resource exists,” Bublitz said. “It’s in its infancy, but it is here and we’re getting stuff into people’s hands now.

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