By TOM KUGLIN | Independent Record

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A small donation box available to hunters will have big impacts for many hungry Montanans this year and next, with the Hunters Against Hunger program raising more than $77,000 and generating more than 5,500 pounds of meat this huntingseason.

Although feeding the hungry is something virtually everyone supports, a small but vocal group of critics questions whether the free donation program encouraged hunters to take more game than they intended to personally use.

A law passed in the last Legislature allowed hunters to donate $1 or more to the program when purchasing hunting licenses. That money goes to paying meat processors for processing game meat donated and distributed to local food shares. Animals confiscated by the state are also donated to the program.

By all accounts, hunters came through, donating $77,435, the Independent Record reported.

“I would definitely call the first year a success,” said Jeff Gutierrez, executive director for the Montana Food Bank Network. “We're still getting calls and I think it went great, especially for a first-year program.”

The majority of the donated meat came through Helena, Butte, Glendive, Great Falls and Missoula, with smaller donations coming in from around the state, he said.

Hunters have long been able to donate professionally processed big game meat to food share, but until this year, hunters had to personally pay for the processing. Hunters can now donate all or part of a game animal, and can choose to donate monetarily to the processing at the time of donation as well.

Game meat offers healthy, lean protein that because of cost is high on the list for many clients at the Helena Food Share, said Executive Director Ann Waickman. The hunters who donated to the program deserve praise, she said.

Helena Food Share provides emergency food for around 1,500 families each month, serves more than 520 elementary school children through the Kid Packs program each week and distributes more than 5,000 pounds of food each day, according to its website.

While many celebrate the program, some critics fear it could lead to hunters shooting and donating animals they had no intention of eating.

“Hunters, state and federal agencies support these programs as really just a way to make killing animals for fun palatable to the public,” said Ashely Byrne, campaign specialist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “Hunters may get their kicks from shooting innocent animals, but they should leave the deer out of it and instead volunteer in a soup kitchen.”

When it comes to the motivation to donate meat, the ethics come down to the individual hunter, said Jim Posewitz of Helena Hunters and Anglers.

“The ethical line is the person that exercises this option to donate must look at their own set of assumptions before they go hunting,” he said. “If you hunted fair chase, ethically and enjoyed the experience and on top of that you share it with the needy people of your community, then that's one set of assumptions.”

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Information from: Independent Record, http://www.helenair.com