Even though much of Montana is publicly owned, you sometimes need to cross privately owned land to reach public land. This is an issue especially for anglers and hunters, because access to the best streams and hunting grounds is often across private land.
Always ask permission to cross private land, especially when it’s fenced and always if there is a no trespassing sign. Don’t be surprised if you are asked to pay a small fee to cross private lands, especially in popular fishing areas such as the Madison Valley. In parts of eastern Montana, the state has agreements with private landowners to allow access to private lands for hunting purposes. However, you must have written permission to hunt on these lands and must report in to the landowner.
Most landowners are tolerant of people who ask permission to enter their land, but don’t be surprised if permission is not granted. If a pasture is filled with cows and young calves, a rancher probably won’t want people trooping through to fly-fish and certainly wouldn’t allow someone in to start shooting rifles. Be considerate and polite and you’ll usually get the permission you want. You may even make a friendly acquaintance with a real Montanan.
Each of Montana’s seven Indian reservations is self-governing, and the state does not have authority to regulate fishing, hunting, or other recreational activities on tribal land. In fact, most reservation land is off-limits to all but tribe members. Remember that for many tribes, the land contains sacred sites and possesses a deeper significance to them than it may to you—it’s perhaps more than just a cool place to race a mountain bike, in other words. Some tribes are more open to multiuse recreation than others; the Flathead reservation is generally open to nonmembers (as long as they have tribal permits), while the Crow reservation is generally off-limits to the public.
As you would for any privately owned land, always ask permission before trespassing. Tribal permits for hiking or fishing, if necessary, are generally available from most businesses on the reservation. They may be free or they may cost a small fee. When in doubt, call the tribal office to inquire about access and permits.
None of this information is intended to give the impression that reservations are closed to visitors or that tourism isn’t welcome. Respectful visitors are welcome at powwows and other cultural and sporting events (Indian rodeos are especially enjoyable). Ask Travel Montana for a brochure on tourism on the state’s reservations.