Montana’s big game season comes to a close Sunday, but the legal entanglements surrounding the voter-passed law banning canned hunts on game farm shows no signs of disappearing into the woods.
A lawsuit filed Nov. 8 in District Court in Missoula by lawyers for the Schubarth family, owner of the Sun River Game Park in Cascade County, alleges that Dave Stalling, Stan Frasier and Gary Holmquist, all Missoula County residents and high-profile backers of I-143, made libelous and slanderous statements during their campaign in favor of the initiative. A third count charges the men with intentionally interfering with business contracts. I-143 sounded the death knell for state game farms when it was approved by voters in a statewide election last year.
According to the suit, voters were told that game farm elk shipped from Montana to Alberta, Canada in the early 1990s caused an outbreak of bovine tuberculosis that cost the province millions of dollars, as well as its highly valued TB-free agricultural status. The plaintiffs allege that those statements were false, and are now seeking damages from the three men as a result of their loss of businesses.
Stalling, who serves as the conservation editor for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s magazine, Bugle, says that he can document every statement he made in support of the initiative. “I have, literally, piles of evidence from the Alberta Fish and Game Department, newspaper articles and biologists, that show that those statements are absolutely true,” he says, adding that denying the situation in Alberta is “akin to denying the fires happened last year in Montana. This was huge in Alberta.” Stalling regards the lawsuit as “ludicrous.” “If this was meant to scare and intimidate, it has utterly failed,” he says, “and I don’t think it’s fair to burden taxpayers and the legal system for such a laughable matter.”
According to Mark Kende, a law professor at the University of Montana who teaches constitutional law, says the plaintiffs will face a sizeable challenge in proving their case.
“In a civil slander case, the preponderance of evidence must show that the statements were false, and the speaker must be proven negligent in making the statements,” says Kende. “The short version is that this seems like a difficult legal burden to overcome.”