FILE - Deer hunting

(The Center Square) – Hunters in Montana supply 40,000 to 50,000 pounds of meat annually from the game they hunt – and donate cash – to help residents served by local food banks as part of the Hunters Against Hunger program.

Hunters can participate in two ways. On the application for a hunting tag, they can check a box to include a monetary donation to the program, or they can donate a legally harvested wild game animal to a participating processor who will process the animal into burger. That meat is frozen and then donated to a local food bank or food pantry in the community close to the processor.

“I know a lot of hunters who want to give back who enjoy the sport of hunting, but they don't want to be wasteful at the same time,” Eric Luongo, agency resource coordinator for the Montana Food Bank Network, told The Center Square.

Food banks that partner with the Montana Food Bank Network tell him their clients enjoy the wild game.

“It's familiar, they may have grown up eating it. It’s also super nutritious as well. So it's a familiar food that I think a lot of clients appreciate having being made available to them when they go to get food from their local food pantry,” he said.

Protein is expensive for food banks to purchase, so the hunters’ donations are an added bonus, he said.

The money hunters donate goes toward reimbursing processors for their work. Luongo said his organization is allotted on average $80,000 to $100,000 each year from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to pay the processors up to $3 per pound for the finished product. Between 30 and 35 processors are signed on each year as a donation site. Hunters look up the closest processor on the Hunters Against Hunger website.

They bring their animal to the processor, who accepts it at no charge, processes it and holds it in their coolers until the local food bank picks it up. The processor sends Luongo an invoice for the work.

Out-of-state hunters may find it difficult to physically take the meat from their hunting trip with them, but don’t want to waste it. The Hunters Against Hunger program gives them an opportunity to avoid being wasteful and give back, he said.

“But from what past year's numbers tell me, on average, I've seen about 80% are our Montanans contributing to the program as far as donations of physical animals go, and about 20% are coming from out of state. Which I initially thought there'd be more out-of-state hunters because Montana is a beautiful place and a destination for a lot of hunters,” Luongo said.

The program has limits on what animals are accepted.

“The accepted animals to the program are deer, elk, moose, antelope and bison. So, no fowl or bear or roadkill or anything like that,” he said.

Deer yield 50 to 100 pounds of meat each, with antelope providing approximately 30 to 40 pounds as the smallest game animal included. The elk yields a couple of hundred pounds or more, he said.

The Hunters Against Hunger program works primarily with food banks that are part of the Montana Food Network. But Luongo said any nonprofit organization that can safely store and distribute the donations can sign an agreement to become eligible to receive them.

“If there's a community in Montana where there's a meat processor and a nonprofit that's feeding food insecure people, anybody in need, they would be eligible to receive those donations,” he said.

It’s not just hunters who supply meat from game animals to Montanans in need. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks game wardens also donate to the program. These animals might have been confiscated from poaching or someone without hunting tags. Sometimes they have to auction it off in the area where they confiscated the game because they are too far from a participating processor and food bank.

The program began in 2014 as a partnership between the Montana Food Bank Network and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, but now it’s written into state law.