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SITKA Team | Photos by Nathan Norby | 6.15.2020

SITKA Ecosystem Grant Profile: Montana Wilderness School Q&A

Montana Wilderness School (MWS) is a non-profit outdoor education program based in Bozeman, MT. The backbone of the program is multi-week backcountry expeditions that challenge our youth mentally and physically while teaching them practical outdoor skills. An overarching goal is to instill an appreciation for the importance of public lands and wild spaces. We sat down with Gar Duke, the co-founder and Executive Director of MWS to learn more about the program and their new curriculum for the aspiring backcountry hunter.

As part of our Sitka Ecosystem Grant program, Montana Wilderness School has received funding to cover 100% of the scholarship needs for their upcoming Backcountry Skills for the Aspiring Hunter 2020 summer course.

Tell us more about the Montana Wilderness School?

Our instruction framework is built on these key principles:

  1. Building and supporting a rich and diverse community.
  2. Cultivating personal growth and character development.
  3. Fostering technical skill competency.

Students are led by field staff who have undergone two full weeks of interactive and discussion-rich training on topics ranging from wildlife ecology and indigenous peoples to working with adolescents and suicide prevention. Once in the field, instructors provide robust educational and problem-solving opportunities for the students. We want to help students feel confident through pushing themselves safely in individual and group challenges.

To date, the MWS Youth Wilderness Program has:

  1. Served 232 students ranging from 14 - 18 years of age
  2. Led 34 multi-week expeditions lasting 5 to 21 days long on Montana public lands and river
  3. Accumulated more than 3,550 program days, which equals 85,200 program hours with our students
  4. Awarded $367,177 in scholarships

How long has the program been running?

2020 is our 6th season running our Youth Wilderness Program.

What’s the program’s mission?

The mission of the Montana Wilderness School is to provide empowering expeditionary wilderness courses to youth that foster personal growth and cultivate a conservation ethic.

Why did you start it?

Richard Louv states, “We cannot protect something we do not love, we cannot love what we do not know, and we cannot know what we do not see. Or hear. Or sense.” Preserving our world is going to take significant effort from current and future youth. Young people who have explored nature and been challenged by it will develop a desire to preserve it.

When my partner, Josh Olsen, and I chose to create MWS 7 years ago, there was not a locally-run immersive outdoor education program in Montana that served the youth. Programs had existed here in the past, but they were mostly focused on bringing youth in from out of state and had not been successful for various reasons.

Josh and I both believed that we should have a program run by locals that served locals. And, more importantly, that ALL youth should be served that are diverse in terms of culture, gender, race, and socio-economics. The more diverse our students, the more powerful the learning and outcomes.

In regards to financials, Josh and I both grew up in families that did not have the financial means to pay tuition costs in programs like MWS when we were young and that still resonates with us today. Making MWS financially accessible to underserved participants is something that really separates MWS from other similar programs around the country. Since inception, MWS has still NOT turned away a deserving participant because of money and we have awarded youth over $367,000 in the last 5 years of programming.

Why is the SITKA Ecosystems Grant important to MWS and your Backcountry Skills for the Aspiring Hunter course?

We rely on funding from foundation grants, businesses, and individual donors that go towards our operating and program costs. Without this generosity, MWS wouldn't be able to operate and implement its mission to create impactful and transformational experiences for youth in the outdoors.

As a local business, having SITKA Gear’s generous support shows how much they value youth and conservation in our community. We look at this relationship as a partnership and appreciate that the SITKA Team cares about our youth program and is helping us serve young people on a course with shared values. Without this, we would not have the means to impact the lives of more young people each year and to continue building new courses.

How has this grant affected the course and opportunities for underserved kids to experience the course?

Over 70% of our local Montana students each year come from underserved and underrepresented families and are supported by the MWS Scholarship Fund. In the last 5 program seasons, we have awarded over $367,000 in financial assistance to local participants and have yet to turn away a student because of financial need. The Ecosystem Grant has generously chosen to continue our thread of leveling the playing field and creating opportunities for all youth to participate, not just those with financial means, and we are so thankful for this new collaboration.

Can you give an overview of the Backcountry Skills for the Aspiring Hunter course?

The Backcountry Skills for the Aspiring Hunter course is a 10-day backpacking adventure that focuses on educating youth to become proficient backcountry hunters. We accomplish this by giving students the knowledge, tools, and skill-sets to travel safely and efficiently in the backcountry.

Course curricula will involve:

  1. Learning traditional navigation and GPS map technology
  2. Practicing Leave No Trace Principles©
  3. Traveling and camping in areas with abundant wildlife
  4. Learning about wildlife tracks, scat, patterns and behaviors
  5. Training on grizzly bear safety

Aside from tangible skills in hunting, what do students typically learn?

Although we actively work to involve character development, it happens naturally. It’s difficult to walk away from a multi-week backcountry expedition without feeling more confident and empowered. For many of our students this experience is transformational and a rite of passage in their lives.
Josh Olsen, Co-founder and Program Director showing students how to splint for backcountry leg fractures during part of the16 hour Wilderness First Aid course.

How did hunting, or prepping for hunting become part of the curriculum for MWS?

Hunting is a strong part of Montana culture. Most hunters I know care deeply about preserving public lands, wild spaces, free-flowing rivers, and maintaining healthy wildlife populations. Many of us at MWS are backcountry hunters and it is something we can speak to and would love to share.

Learning to backcountry hunt is intimidating if you do not have guidance and support from folks that are already competent. There are many variables to consider, prepare for and navigate in and out of the field. Our course intends to appeal to young people who want to build a foundation of outdoor backcountry skills, and we aim to provide a spark for them to get out there with their friends and family in the future.

How can people help?

We could always use help to get the word out about this opportunity and to fill this course with interested youth. The link to the course is here:

Also, our program could use more financial support so we can continue growing and serving more youth. MWS is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in good standing. Our tax ID is 46-4371734.

A group of students from Brooklyn, NYC gather after 12 days on the Missouri River in Montana. These students are part of a group called SEO Scholars which has worked in partnership with Montana Wilderness School for the last 3 years.

Our online donation page is here: Donations can also be sent to: MWS, PO Box 1183, Bozeman, MT 59771

To learn more about the Sitka Ecosystem Grant program, please visit