A dense fog had barely lifted when the faint chop of the helicopter’s rotor echoed down from Montana’s Bears Paw mountains, sending the small group of hunters, biologists, volunteers, and tribal officials scurrying into position. It was a cold, damp morning in late January, and before my coffee had even cooled enough to drink, the buzz of what was about to happen spiked my system with a boost of adrenaline better than any caffeine.
The chopper deftly circled around the line of trucks and trailers, swinging a heavy line below. The pilot gently lowered his cargo to the ground. We gripped our hats and shouldered into the rotor’s wash. As quickly as it had appeared, the helicopter was off, leaving behind four bighorn sheep, blindfolded and bucking in their hobbles on the short-grass prairie.
Brendan Burns, chief hunting officer and director of conservation for KUIU Ultralight Hunting, had spent more than a year planning for this moment. He outpaced the group as we ran up the small rise to the struggling sheep and was the first to reach the four bighorns. I knelt to unclip a ewe from the sling and steadied her head by grabbing a horn. As a lifelong hunter, this wasn’t how I dreamed I would lay my hands on a bighorn for the first time, but ultimately, it was even more rewarding than I had ever imagined it would be.
My team of five, which included former Petersen’s Hunting editor Mike Schoby, hefted the ewe a short distance to one of four steel examination tables, where wildlife officials from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department went to work. Blood was drawn, shots given, and a radio collar was locked into place around each bighorn’s neck. All the while, the sheep were closely monitored, and as body temperatures rose due to stress, we made every effort to keep them cool and calm. Rubbing frigid water into the ewe’s fur, I felt its rapid heartbeat under my hand and found myself quietly reassuring the sheep that everything was okay.
On cue, I unbuckled the hobbles, and we lifted the bighorn once again, carrying the ewe to a waiting livestock trailer, where it rejoined the other three sheep. Within minutes, the sound of the rotor spurred us into action once again. By shortly after noon, we’d filled two stock trailers with 25 big-horn ewes and five rams, all headed for a new home in North Dakota’s Badlands. A day later, another 25 bighorn sheep would be trapped and translocated to Utah’s Antelope Island. The entire operation, managed by Burns, was 100 percent funded by KUIU customers, under the unique and innovative KUIU Conservation Direct program.
Direct and Disruptive
From its very beginning, KUIU has been a disrupter. Founder Jason Hairston, frustrated with the inability to bring the best hunting gear to market due to prohibitive costs caused by the standard retail supply chain, decided to do things differently. Instead of compromising on the product to meet profit margins the big box retailers demanded, he would build the best clothing using the best materials and sell it direct to the consumer. The idea not only proved wildly successful—KUIU is now a multimillion-dollar company that leads in product innovation—but Hairston also created a whole new business model in an otherwise traditional industry. The disruption was so great it created a lot of enemies among outdoor companies entrenched in the old ways of doing business.
That ill will also put up a number of roadblocks, particularly when it came to giving back to the industry. When passing the hat for project funding, several organizations skipped over KUIU completely, at the demands of some of the larger retailers threatened by KUIU’s direct-to-consumer business model.
“Certainly, there have been a lot of projects we have been excluded from,” said Burns, who, as KUIU employee No. 1, has been with the company since the very beginning. “Retailers and other companies have told conservation organizations ‘if you go with a consumer-direct brand, we’re not going to be involved. That’s an attack on our business model.’
“So we’ve missed out on a bunch of opportunities, which in turn has caused people to question what KUIU does for conservation. Our competitors have branded themselves as big promoters of conservation, though they really haven’t done anything. All they’ve done is just PR and advertising. That’s a business expense, not actual conservation.”
Fixing What’s Broken
Like his friend and mentor Hairston, Burns is driven by a competitive spirit combined with a passion for hunting and wildlife. After Hairston’s passing in 2018, Burns led KUIU through the transition, serving as co-CEO with current CEO Melissa Woolf for a year-and-a-half. Once the future of KUIU was assured, Burns moved into his new role as Chief Hunting Officer. While the title may sound like a dream job, his primary goal is to ensure the core values of KUIU remain rooted in hunting.
A big part of that job is focusing on wildlife and habitat conservation and supporting the causes important to the company’s avid customer base. For Burns and KUIU, that means more than just donating dollars and product to support the conservation banquet circuit. In true KUIU fashion, it means disrupting the corporate model and creating the next wave in wildlife conservation.
“Corporate conservation is broken,” said Burns. “Every company has a conservation director that stands up at a banquet and gets an award. It’s like Groundhog Day. They talk about what they hoped to get done, but didn’t get done, then donate enough money to come back next year and talk about the same shit.
“This conservation concept is now hashtags on Instagram and golf claps at banquets. Hell, I think there are more films about conservation than actual conservation projects. Even donating money insulates from you having to actually do something. I get awareness. I get lobbying. It’s not glamorous. We do it, too, and KUIU is happy to be involved when we’re allowed to be, but it’s not getting anything done.”
According to Burns, he hears it from other hunters and KUIU customers all the time. People are frustrated. They give money, but they don’t know where it goes.
“There is a ton of generous people out there who want to see their money used for something,” he said. “They believe in the cause, but they are not seeing the results. They want projects that are real. They want to get their hands dirty.”
True to KUIU fashion, Burns created a new paradigm he hopes will completely disrupt the current corporate-conservation model and ultimately changes the way people support wildlife conservation, from just giving dollars to actually taking action.
“Jason Hairston was a disrupter,” said Burns. “He told me, ‘If you find a better way to do something that gets closer to our customers, we should do that.’”
From the very beginning, Hairston and the KUIU team created a strong bond with the company’s fans by making them a part of the process. Burns knew if he was going to create a new conservation model, those customers would have to be a big part of it.
KUIU Conservation Direct is actually a simple idea based on the way wildlife conservation started 50+ years ago. Find a project. Raise the funds. Execute it. If you eliminate the time, costs, and bureaucratic headaches that come when you have a bunch of middlemen, you can get big, important projects done. Those funds would come from KUIU’s customers, who understand the consumer-direct way of doing business.
“The KUIU way of doing business created a different customer that feels a closer connection to the brand,” said Burns. “We build really great gear, and they buy it. Conservation Direct is the same concept. We have a really great project and these people care.”
To create the kind of splash needed to disrupt an entrenched paradigm, the initial Conservation Direct project would have to be big. And Burns had an idea that would do just that. In addition to his job at KUIU, Burns has also been an integral part of the bighorn sheep program on the Chippewa-Cree Rocky Boy’s Reservation in north-central Montana. Burns bought the first bighorn tag on the reservation, has guided other hunters to rams there, and has a close relationship with the tribe. The private sale of hunting tags has generated more than $1.6 million for the tribe, fully funding their fish and game department.
Burns has watched the herd grow, working with the Montana Game, Fish & Parks department to keep the herd at 100 sheep without having animals leave the reservation or encounter the kind of die-offs common to wild sheep herds. In 2019, after a few years of great lamb recruitment, Burns counted nearly 200 bighorn sheep in the reservation’s herd. After two counts that were that high, Burns realized the reservation would have to transplant some sheep.
At a wildlife convention symposium talking about the cost of sheep transplants, Burns asked himself, “How hard can it be to transplant sheep?”
“In reality, it isn’t that hard,” said Burns. “We did an accurate count, and I bought the excess sheep from the tribe. I paid $1,000 per sheep. Usually excess sheep are given away, but I wanted to pay the most that’s ever been paid. It’s important to raise revenue for the tribe, and I believe that they’re worth that.”
After putting a pencil to paying and figuring out how much the trap and transplant was going to cost, Burns had a pretty good idea of how he was going to fund such an audacious plan.
“I picked up the phone and called our best customers,” said Burns. “With just a few calls, I raised more than $100,000. It was incredible. I just called and explained the action plan and said I want you to be involved. One hundred percent of the funds is going to this transplant. There’s no overhead.
“The cool part is, I really think I could have raised a million dollars. I made sixteen phone calls and it was done. Not one person said no. Every person asked, ‘How much and where do I send the check?’ The only negative I’m going to get is other customers are going to find out and ask, ‘Why didn’t you call me?’”
New Sheep on the Mountain
Once the funding was secured, Burns made a few more phone calls with offers to donate the excess bighorns.
“I got ahold of probably the best sheep biologist in the world—Brett Wiedmann of North Dakota Game and Fish—and we figured out how to make this happen,” said Burns of the plan to create two new bighorn sheep herds in the badlands of the Fort Berthold Reservation in western North Dakota. Though the region has historically been a range for bighorns, it has been missing wild sheep for more than 150 years.
In 2018, Utah had a catastrophic die-off of desert bighorns on Antelope Island, so Burns also reached out to another leading wildlife biologist, Jace Taylor of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, with an offer to rebuild the herd there with Rocky Boy’s excess bighorns. The new sheep create a nursery program that ultimately will help build and sustain huntable bighorn sheep populations throughout Utah. Many of the ewes transported to both states were pregnant, and as of late May, 32 lambs had been added to the new sheep herds.
“This is a gift to the people of North Dakota and Utah, from KUIU and KUIU customers,” said Burns. “At the end of the day, I want hunters to ask the companies they buy their gear from, ‘What are you doing for conservation?’”