Access, Ethics and Horses: A Conversation With George Bettas

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It’s a sunny, late June afternoon in western Montana, and I’m driving south out of Missoula with onX Marketing Manager Zach Sandau. To the west, the Bitterroot Range hangs heavy over the valley. To the east are the Sapphires, gently sloping up from the valley floor. We’ve cut out of the office early to spend the afternoon with George Bettas, an accomplished hunter, horseman, and conservationist living in the heart of the Bitterroot Valley.

From a childhood spent on a farm in central Washington, George has earned a reputation as a leader in the hunting industry, an exceedingly capable outdoorsman, and an unwavering advocate for the future of our sport. He has served as Executive Director of the Boone and Crockett Club, editor of Western Hunter magazine, and, most recently, the coordinator and lead instructor of the Montana Hunter Advancement Program’s Master Hunter course. As if that isn’t enough, George is also a co-founder and past president of the Mule Deer Foundation and a former Chair of the Board for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

George meets us at the door and welcomes us like old friends. He is as unassuming as he is capable, and the strength in his handshake belies his age. He’s in his seventies, but I wouldn’t bet against him in an arm wrestling contest. More than that, though, he’s as sharp as a skinning knife, with carefully considered speech and the easy sort of demeanor that allows for real conversation. For the next two hours, we talk about George’s beginnings, some of his biggest adventures, his love of horses, and his thoughts on a few of the more important issues facing hunters today

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George didn’t grow up in a hunting family, but he was surrounded by the sport every fall when hunters from Seattle would head east to the Bettas’ Ellensburg-area farm to chase mule deer. It was these outdoorsmen, with their larger-than-life stories of adventure, that sent George on the path that would define his life. He began hunting mule deer on the family farm with a borrowed .30-06, and he did a bit of deer and upland hunting while in Texas during his time at university and in the Army. But it wasn’t until his return to Washington, in pursuit of a doctorate at Washington State University, that George dove headlong into hunting.

A younger George Bettas with a big Montana deer.

“That was 1971, and that was my first real experience with big game, George reflects. “And trophy big game, because we were in Hell’s Canyon, and at the time there were so many big four-point bucks around there you wouldn’t believe it.”

Soon after, George’s interests broadened to include spring bear in Idaho. He made friends with a biologist in the area doing an elk calf survival study in the Lochsa region of the Clearwater National Forest and learned how to hunt the calving areas for the larger bears that would move in to prey on the calves. Pouring over the researcher’s notes revealed bear behavior patterns and bear-dense areas, but it let him on something else that would shape his hunting passions. Through the course of this learning process, of course, the locations of elk were revealed to George as well.

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George earned a Ph.D. from Washington State University and stayed in Pullman to serve as the Dean of Students. It’s easy to see how his relaxed composure served him well in a role in which patience was an essential quality.

“You deal with students that are growing and developing, and in the residence halls, in those days, they’re experimenting with marijuana and alcohol. A lot of alcohol,” George says. “And you deal with students that are having trouble behaviorally. You see the ones that are really good—you know, the student body president or the residence hall and fraternity presidents. But you also see the ones that are having serious problems with alcohol or getting into fights. And some of my best friends today are young guys that I met through a conduct-related situation.”

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It was something about his hunting skill and accomplishments in the backcountry, George reckons, that allowed him to connect with the young men. They respected him, and many have gone on to achieve extraordinary success. There was one student, however, with whom George couldn’t connect—Ryan Leaf, the Heisman finalist quarterback and second pick in the 1998 NFL draft behind Peyton Manning. Leaf would go on to be called the biggest draft bust in NFL history and has spent his post-NFL life bouncing between prison and rehab facilities.

After thirty-two years at Washington State, George retired. It didn’t take, though, and he moved to Missoula to serve as the CEO of the Boone and Crockett Club shortly thereafter. He spent six years with Boone and Crockett before attempting another ultimately unsuccessful retirement. Just a month after leaving the Boone and Crockett headquarters in the Old Milwaukee Depot for the last time, he received a call from the chair of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Foundation Board.

Over the next eight years, George helped raise a substantial amount of money for grizzly bear conservation projects and served as the Executive Director of the Foundation. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, he failed yet again in his attempt to retire. Shortly after leaving the FWP Foundation, George was approached to lead a new effort—the Montana Master Hunter program.

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When George first traveled to Alaska, it was a different place than it is now. Along with his brother, an airman stationed at Cold Bay Air Force Station, George hunted brown bears along the Joshua Green River and sheep in the Alaska Range. This was before satellite communication and the seemingly unbreakable tether to civilization, and George and his brother learned how to organize and execute a remote hunt with remarkable success. “I mean, there’s no communication,” he laughs. “You break your leg, you’re probably over. But in those days, we were invincible. We were going to do it.” The only problem they repeatedly encountered was trying to hitch a ride back to town on the Alcan Highway with their rifles and backpacks full of meat.

Closer to home, though, George was learning a new skill. To solve the problem of hauling out hundreds of pounds of elk meat in a backpack from ten miles deep in the Lochsa, he knew he needed horses. He admits to starting his journey into packing a little like a sheep herder just tying gear on and working his way into a more skilled approach. “Then, you gotta figure out how you’re going to shoe your horses, you gotta figure out how to take care of them. And then, there’s everything else that goes with it, all the gear.”

George Bettas on horseback leading a pack train.

We’re looking out of the window of his living room, and George’s horses are lazily grazing in the sun. This is the Montana summer that takes your breath away—the amber afternoon, the endless azure sky. George is all smiles as we discuss what it takes to keep horses, how to handle them around camp in bear country and the trust that develops after years of backcountry adventuring. We talk about bird dogs, my area of experience, and how they too exhibit that immediate shift in behavior when there is work to do. At the sight of a horse trailer or dog box, they’re both all business.

George might make a backpack trip in the summer, but nearly every other trip involves his horses. We talk about the partnership that develops between a man and his horse, between a man and his bird dog, and how we learn to trust them. George’s oldest mule is twenty-four, and the way George describes him reminds me of my nine-year-old dog. They are predictable and they are trustworthy. They are reliable. More than that, though, they’re hunting buddies, and the thought of striking out into the woods without his horses hits George the same way that kicking around in the woods without my bird dogs hits me—what the hell’s the point?

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While George was serving as the Executive Director of the Montana FWP Foundation, a large amount of funding was provided to One Montana, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to bridging the widening gap between rural and urban communities. If history helps to predict the future, it should come as no surprise that shortly after George’s attempted retirement from the FWP Foundation, he found himself on the phone with One Montana’s Bill Bryan discussing the possibility of a new framework for advanced hunter education.

After a couple of years of research, fundraising, and curriculum development, the Montana Hunter Advancement Program (MHAP) was launched. This 50-hour program provides a comprehensive education in conservation, land stewardship, ballistics, and marksmanship. Students are even instructed on land navigation through the use of onX Hunt. The coursework is taught by an impressive cadre of ranchers, university faculty, shooting instructors, wildlife managers, biologists, and more. Upon completion of the program, certified Master Hunters are afforded hunting access to private lands that would otherwise not be available to them. It is these cooperative agreements between One Montana and landowners that set MHAP apart from other advanced hunter education programs.

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The need for such a program, according to George, stems from two closely related problems. First, hunters are understandably concerned about changing attitudes toward allowing access to private lands. For their part, landowners find it difficult to ensure that the hunters they allow onto their land possess a high degree of skill, laudable ethics, and an actual understanding of the species they chase.

To help explain the need for MHAP and to address an earlier question regarding access, George treated Zach and me to the most comprehensive explanation of the private land access situation I’ve ever heard. From an in-depth exploration of the economic challenges facing farmers and ranchers to the far-from-blameless role of hunters in the trend of decreasing access, George demonstrated a deep and well-reasoned understanding of both perspectives.

· · ·

As the afternoon sun fell toward the Bitterroots, the conversation drifted toward an end. There was one lingering question I had for George, and the moment finally seemed appropriate. After decades of hunting experience and NGO leadership as well as interactions with every type of hunter imaginable, how does he feel about the future of our sport? Is he optimistic? Apprehensive?

We talk about technology and how it has changed the way we enjoy our time out-of-doors. Ever complimentary, George sees immense value in onX Hunt and the ability to ensure compliance with property boundaries. We talk more about access and the challenges facing public land. The real focus here, though, is around the subject of ethics. Whether it is long-range shooting, infighting among hunters, or the role of social media, George maintains that hunters must work to maintain an impeccable ethic if we are to have any hope of growing our numbers and leaving our sport better than we found it. “So where does it go? It has to go with companies like onX and all the others in the shooting sports industry,” he says. “We’ve got to focus on keeping people aware of what we’re doing and supporting those people who support the ethical part.”

George Bettas with a beloved bid dog and the day's haul.

The phone rings, and George is working out the shipping details for a new Weatherby rifle. When he hangs up, the excitement is visible on his face. He’s been at this for over four decades, but the childlike curiosity isn’t waning. In a few short months, the horses will be loaded up and George will head into the backcountry in pursuit of elk—and he’ll be just as excited and eager as he was when he first packed in to the Lochsa in the late seventies.

Earlier in the conversation, George had mentioned the amount of work required to make the Master Hunter program work. With 2019 classes in Missoula, Bozeman, and Billings, George crossed the state on more than one occasion. Next year, he’s planning classes in Great Falls and Kalispell, but he wonders if it might be time to hand the reins over to someone else.

We shake hands and say our goodbyes. The sun is falling toward the Bitterroots, and the valley is aglow. Zach looks over and asks, “Did he say he was thinking about retiring again? I bet it won’t last three months!”

I smile. “I’ll bet the under.”

Christian Fichtel

Raised in North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains, Christian Fichtel now resides in rural Montana. He is a father, writer, hunter, and fly fisherman.