A Bloody November—Reckless Hunters Shoot into Distant Elk Stampedes
BY BLAKE MAXWELL
One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Aldo Leopold
I ran over the crusty pasture, my rifle across both hands. There were three of us spread out on a shattered plate of snow and earth. Old cowprints hindered our pace. Two shots boomed from the road behind me, and our target was now in the open, straight ahead. I realized there were kill-happy men shooting from the road over the top of us.
If this sounds anything like a war movie, then I must be telling it right. And while the experience felt apocalyptic, this wasn’t northern France in the fall of 1944. It was last November, a Sunday, the final evening of the elk hunting season, and I was in Paradise Valley, Montana.
Ahead was a herd of elk in full gallop. They’d come off a large acreage of the Paradise Valley Ranch owned by Austen Cargill II, and now were on Bob Anderson’s block management piece. On this land they could be publicly hunted, and a cloud of shots was lofted.
As another hunter in a better position would later recall, “I was 125, maybe 150 yards away looking at a running herd of meat. My rifle was steadied on a fencepost, and they were crossing right in front of me. But at that pace, there’s not really a good shot. There’s no way to tell which one you’re aiming at or even if you hit it. Elk aren’t like deer. They might not even flinch if they’re hit, they’ll just keep running.”
Of the many shots fired, he said, “I had a better position than anybody, I’m sure of it. And I remember thinking, ‘What are these other people doing?’”
We’re reminded of the words of Jim Posewitz from Beyond Fair Chase: the Ethic and Tradition of Hunting:
“We have all heard stories of hunters who suffer ‘buck fever’…In the worst circumstance, wild shots are taken, animals are wounded, and other hunters are placed in peril.”
To enter the Paradise Valley pasture the elk first had to cross a few trucks on Trail Creek Road with several hunters nearby, before crashing through a herd of grazing cattle. Even so, the long-range artillery poured in from all over. I watched with my rifle now strapped to my shoulder as four-, five-, six-hundred yard shots were lobbed into a moving herd.
“The ‘hail mary’ idea of putting shot in the air and hoping for a lucky hit is unacceptable. Such a practice risks crippling, is almost never successful, and may deny an opportunity to another hunter,” Posewitz warns.
Sportscaster Al Michaels could not have called it better from a pressbox over the field. In spite of a couple dozen shots, only one cow elk would be taken from that first charge. Her hind leg blown out, she was fired on at least seven times before falling near the creek. Worthless, my companions and I stood by as three other elk, all badly wounded, struggled to get over a faraway fence. More than a quarter mile up the slope, they were out of reach and soon would be on private land. They would almost certainly die up on that hill, in the coming hours and days, all in waste.
Two separate Montana FWP game wardens were present. I could see them in their brown trucks creeping along the road bordering the pasture. They did not stop.
But now the crowd’s attention was on the remaining herd, still twitching to cross the road and Trail Creek, eager to join the first sortie. I looked north and south, there were some twenty vehicles that I could see, all near the intersection of Trail Creek Road and Divide Road. Hunters milled among the trucks, some pushed up against the fencelines. An ATV spit out snow and gravel as it tore onto the PVR and toward the remaining herd.
There was a moment of lost balance, what contemporary times refer to as ‘a tipping point.’ The long crescendo of excitement—with big eyes all around and guns pointed skyward—collapsed into chaos. It was then that the crowd realized the elk might escape and that the authorities were lax in their duties. And it was then that the crowd digressed to a mob.
“I thought that’s when the wardens would start asking questions, but they didn’t,” Mike Sanctuary said. “They just seemed to watch like everyone else.”
I’d discovered the presence of killers among the hunters already, but this was different. The wardens remained detached, while more and more showed the PVR barbed-wire fence only the attention needed to climb over. The rule of private property was tossed aside, an easy sacrifice on the altar of Montana’s last day of the big game season.
“I figured they were poachers because only about five were inside [Cargill’s] fence before,” one hunter said. “After that herd came through, many more—too many to count—went up after the second herd.”
Sanctuary said, “I never saw one [of the wardens] get out of their truck, ask anyone questions, or ask to see tags. Obviously, they didn’t care if permission was granted by the landowner or not. They also didn’t seem to ask anyone if they had permission to hunt on the block management either. I guess I’m not sure what good they did by being there.”
That Tuesday, I spoke briefly with Sam Sheppard, the FWP’s regional Captain of Law Enforcement. With all of Region 3 to supervise, Sheppard said he wasn’t present at Trail Creek on Sunday and referred me to Warden Sergeant Joseph Knarr, one of two wardens on site. Before hanging up, Chief Warden Sheppard stated that he understood that Cargill’s Paradise Valley Ranch had an “open gate policy” that day.
That would be nice for the FWP. Under an open gate policy, all responsibility would fall back on the hunters, the property lessee or the owner, in this case Cargill, 143rd on the Forbes 400 Richest Americans list. From that perspective, one can speculate to excess about how the mess was written off by the authorities.
The outfitter with the leased rights to hunt Cargill’s land, Bill Hoppe of Jardine, Montana, said there was no such open gate policy. President of the hunter advocacy group Friends of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd, Hoppe was in the Trail Creek vicinity that Sunday evening, but from his point of view, 1,500 feet up and on top of Antelope Butte, he could only watch the melee through his field glasses.
When asked if he’d granted open access to the property that day, Hoppe said without hesitation, “No.” While specific permission was given directly to eight or ten hunters, Hoppe said, “I have no idea how many people ended up there. I don’t know who the hell was all on there.”
A little closer to the action than Hoppe, I estimate that easily two dozen crossed or fired across the Paradise Valley Ranch’s boundaries.
In a phone call on Wednesday morning, Warden Sergeant Knarr told me that he could not comment on the gate policy of the PVR, but he assumed that “a lot of people had permission to hunt up there, as they usually do.”
As for the numerous penetrations of the PVR, Knarr said, “It’s up to the landowner to file a complaint. That’s his business.”
A landowner with property adjacent to the Paradise Valley Ranch parcel, David Perlstein, has gone on record several times in the past with complaints about trespassing in the Antelope Butte area. “It’s lawless,” he said. “They do nothing, even if you have pictures of people on your property.”
Knarr confirmed that no citations were issued in the Trail Creek area on Sunday afternoon. He said, “We warned a few people about shooting from the road.” Hunting regulations state that no shots can be taken from a public roadway.
“The same thing happened up there last year, the last day of the season,” Hoppe said. “There’s a herd bunched together, and people just kinda lose sense of what hunting’s all about. Bad things start happening left and right. They leave cripples all over; it’s all those cripples that really bothers me.”
The remaining herd, maybe 250 head of elk, made their break as the light played out. They sprinted across Divide Road and onto a wedge of O’Hair property, land normally regarded as closed. Shots rang out from multiple directions, and the bullets seemed to push the air out from that corner of Paradise Valley. Several elk fell, but more were hit.
Only one hunter followed north into the encroaching darkness, Philip Kedrowski of Bozeman, and he hadn’t even fired a shot. The shadow of a wounded elk could be seen staggering on the treeless field above him.
“Phil, it’s a spike!” Sanctuary shouted from the road, then again over the radio, “It’s a spike!” A spike is a colloquialism for a young male elk, often a yearling, an animal off-limits to hunt unless a special tag is obtained as for a youth or a handicapped person.
It was obvious to Kedrowski the elk would not survive, as it wobbled along the private side of the fence dividing Anderson and O’Hair land. His voice came over the radio again, asking that his friend speak to the warden, “I want to put it down.”
Minutes later, Warden Sergeant Knarr told us, “I cannot authorize that shot.” He then repeated the words, as though gaining confidence. From my point of view, it marked the only decisive action taken by either of the game wardens on the scene that evening.
“It’ll all be over in four minutes,” Knarr said, before rolling away in his government truck. At five-fifteen the season officially ended, and the brown trucks disappeared into the night.
Ethics demand that the wounded animal be pursued, found, and killed, wrote Posewitz.
“I had already gone halfway out there anyway,” Kedrowski said over the phone on Tuesday. “I got close enough to see the spike’s guts hanging out, and he was back on [Anderson’s] land. I wish now that I’d shot it, put the thing out of its misery. But I didn’t. I imagine it died slowly over the night.”
Like lightning striking in the same place, this is the second year such a fiasco played out near the intersection of Trail Creek and Divide, though insiders are aware that the occurrences that evening are by no means confined to this unassuming crossroads.
Knarr confirmed this, “On Sunday, there were ten spots, a dozen spots, like that in Region 3.” He said, “This wasn’t even the worst.”
“Most hunters would have shot into those elk no matter what day of the season it was,” Sanctuary said. “The point is, there are lots of hunters willing to take a less than ideal shot to bag an elk. Point proved by the fact there were more elk injured than actually harvested once they crossed the road.”
Among the two stampedes that evening, only the windswept landscape could know how many animals were shot, crippled, injured, or died. And neither the wind nor the land is telling.
First published December 2, 2010 in The Bozeman Magpie, an online-only alternative newspaper serving the Bozeman area.