The hunter walks quietly along the hillside, eyes wide, scanning, following tracks. Senses heighten. Over there, in the clearing, something moves. It's a cow elk. The hunter freezes, heart pounding. He slowly raises his rifle, frames the elk in the scope, steadies his breathing, and...
So goes another romanticized tale of thrilling primal triumph. They're told by the tens of thousands of hunters who, every fall, shoulder rifles and amble out over Montana's fields and river bottoms, along game trails through forests, and up steep snow-covered slopes. If you've heard one, you've heard them all.
But what about the stories hunters dare not tell? Or the stories so memorable that Montana game wardens and wildlife biologists are the ones who retell them?
Take that cow elk in the clearing. Well, in November 2008, a man from upstate New York hunting somewhere in Montana's Paradise Valley, north of Yellowstone National Park, pulled the trigger and killed it.
But it wasn't an elk. It was a llama.
Some say this llama tale is a rumor—a "rural myth," as one state wildlife biologist recently presumed. But it's true.
The hunter field-dressed that llama. It's unclear what made him finally realize he hadn't bagged an elk, but he later called a state game warden, who had to refer the situation to the Montana Department of Livestock. The DOL took photographs of the gutted llama sprawled in the back of a red pickup, and those photos went viral on the internet.
The hunter wasn't cited for breaking any laws, but the ridicule he suffered "was probably enough," says Sam Sheppard, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' warden captain in that region.
A lot of wild things happen during Montana's annual hunting season, Sheppard says, "that could appear humorous if it wasn't—from a wildlife perspective, and how wildlife's treated—so tragic."
Years of monitoring the annual drama of humans chasing big animals have made Montana's game wardens and wildlife biologists some of our best story tellers. Their tales, and the ones they hear, are indeed filled with hilarity and tragedy, with characters who are gutsy and gutless, and hunters who suddenly find themselves the hunted.
"You name it, we've seen it," Sheppard says.
Montana's general deer and elk season ended Nov. 25. It was the first hunting season in 27 years that Jeff Darrah didn't work for FWP. The longtime warden captain retired this past summer, and now he's at his home near Stevensville, still receiving calls from the field from former colleagues, wondering if he retired too soon. The 53-year-old aggressively pursued poachers, which earned him awards from those who appreciated his work, and death threats and one brick through the windshield from those who didn't.
Poachers didn't appreciate this: Back in 1993, when Darrah was working in Butte, he and fellow game wardens began using deer and elk decoys to bust poachers.
"Generally, when somebody poaches, there's the animal and the bad guy, and the game warden's [far away]," Darrah says while sipping coffee at his kitchen table. "What [the decoy] does is it puts the game warden, the hunter, the bad guy and the animal in the same location, and we get to see if he passes the test or not. It's no different than a highway patrolman sitting along the road with a radar gun waiting to see if somebody speeds."
The wardens began the poaching sting by placing a spike bull elk in an area where it was legal to shoot only brow-tined bulls. One warden ran a video camera, another hid in the brush, and a third observed from a vehicle in case he needed to give chase.
The first day the elk decoy stood in the field, 13 hunters shot it. Most of them, Darrah says, fired from the road, which is illegal. Some fired from their vehicle, which is doubly illegal.
"It was unbelievable," Darrah says. "That was to us, in our world, a record. We had never heard of getting that many shooters in one day."
The wardens went back the next day and nabbed 10 more. "It just didn't slow down," Darrah says.
Then, days later, the wardens moved to a forest road east of Butte that loops back to Interstate 90, which makes it a popular road-hunting route. This time, they waited until it was past legal shooting hours, and placed a mule deer buck decoy at a bend in the road, in the path of oncoming headlights.
"I'll always remember this—and it sounds like maybe we made it up—but we were 10 for 10," Darrah says.
Ten vehicles in a row approached the decoy, stopped, and a passenger took a shot. Darrah says they couldn't write tickets fast enough, to the point where they had two or three vehicles of would-be poachers backed up waiting to be given citations.
"And what's even more unbelievable," Darrah says, "was the makeup of those 10."
One of the hunters was a local preacher with a child in the passenger seat. Another was a retired highway patrolman from Oregon. Another was a well-respected member of a sportsmen's group. Darrah remembers walking up to the vehicle with the sportsman inside. "He rolled down the window and I said, 'You've gotta be kidding me.'"
The next year, Darrah and his fellow wardens received a tip that poachers were heading to a place called Coyote Meadows, off the same forest road where they'd busted 10 poachers in a row. It was about 2 a.m. when the wardens placed a buck decoy at a 90-degree bend in the road, and then hid in nearby bushes. Minutes later, a truck carrying three men rumbled toward them. The truck stopped, and a passenger stepped out with his rifle and fired at the decoy.
"There's nothing like that when you're sitting that close, just feet away, just listening to this," Darrah says. "You're in the still of the night, and when the gun goes off like that and you know it's illegal...it's not just a bang, it's a ker-freaking-bang!"
With the deer still standing, the driver stepped out of the truck with his rifle, mocked his buddy's poor aim, and fired. Ker-bang!
That was enough. Darrah jumped out of the bushes and yelled, "Fish and Game!"
The surprise apparently caused one of the poachers to wet his pants. When he stepped out of the warden's truck after getting a ticket, he left behind a "big soiled stain on the seat cover," Darrah says. "We scared the crap out of him, I guess."
During the first few years they hunted poachers near Butte, Darrah says he and his fellow wardens about doubled the number of poaching cases statewide, from around 70 to 150.
"The decoy has been very, very valuable," he says. "It's not as effective today as it was then, because the word has gotten out—and that's cool, because that's what we wanted to happen. If it takes worrying about whether it's a decoy or not, that instant that it takes gives an animal maybe the time it needs to get away from being poached."
1-800-TIP-MONT is the state's hotline for reporting wildlife crimes. In recent years, the hotline has received about 2,200 calls a year. But this year, FWP's Brian Shinn, the TIP-MONT coordinator, expects the hotline to get about 2,600 calls by Jan. 1, which would be a record.
"There's a couple obvious reasons, and technology would be one of them," Shinn says. "People are in the field now with cellphones, and they see [violations] immediately and they call them in immediately, instead of going home and stewing on it and forgetting about it."
The second reason, Shinn says, is education. "More and more people are educated on the fact that this number exists."
But it's also true that there's been an uptick in poaching cases this year. Shinn calls it a "pretty devastating year," especially in northwest Montana. "This has been, as far as I can see, the worst year of people just shooting things and leaving them lay."
So perhaps Shinn and fellow FWP staffers who field so many grim TIP-MONT calls welcome the ones they can't help but laugh about.
This year or last—Shinn isn't sure which, since he says all of the calls run together in his memory—a boy, who we'll call Tommy, dialed TIP-MONT and Shinn answered.
"I'd like to report a shooting from a vehicle," the boy said, and he provided the shooter's name and the vehicle's license plate number.
Then Shinn heard in the background, "Tommy, who are you calling?"
"I'm turning you in, Uncle Bob," the boy said. "You're not allowed to shoot out the window."
Tommy had busted his own uncle.
It's an anecdote that makes Shinn believe that the hunting culture is changing. "Kids are telling the adults how to hunt now, and I think that's kind of cool," he says.
Another FWP staffer shared the following TIP-MONT call on the condition of anonymity. Shinn can't confirm or deny it.
During this past hunting season, a woman driving down a highway spotted an injured goose on the side of the road. She pulled over and huddled around it to keep it warm, and called for an FWP warden to come and save it. A warden arrived a while later to discover that the goose wasn't a goose at all. It was a goose decoy that evidently had fallen out of the the back of someone's vehicle.
Shinn can confirm a different call. Recently, an upset woman reported a turkey laying in the road. She told TIP-MONT that the turkey just didn't look right; something had happened to it. So Shinn dispatched a warden.
"Long story short," Shinn says, "the warden...goes down there, and it was a Butterball turkey from a store that had fallen out of somebody's truck and was lying in the middle of the road, and the lady thought it was a poached turkey.
"People don't realize that [turkeys] don't come wrapped in the wild, I guess," Shinn adds. "That's the kind of stuff we have to deal with on occasion."
The mountain lion
Not all of the stories are funny.
On Nov. 10, FWP biologist Jay Kolbe, wearing a thick jacket and black Carhartt overalls, sits inside a trailer at the Bonner check station, on the banks of the Blackfoot River east of Missoula, sipping hot tea. It's cold outside. A dusting of snow has fallen, the first accumulation of the hunting season. The snow should help hunters, but so far, at around 3 p.m., only about a half-dozen deer have come through.
This check station, open on the six weekends of hunting season, has been in operation since the early 1950s. Kolbe has worked it for the past seven years. It's in a perfect spot, at a bottleneck between the expansive Blackfoot Valley and Missoula. Some 10,000 hunters drive through the check station every hunting season; state law requires them to stop if they've been hunting that day.
Kolbe gathers data from 11 hunting districts, an area close to two million acres in size. The most important data he collects is the age of harvested animals. Equally important, though harder to quantify, he says, is the value in talking to those 10,000 hunters.
"Personally, for me, it's the most important part of being here," Kolbe says. "You never know what's going to come through. It's always interesting. You're just getting all those stories, and all that input. It's a pretty dynamic place."
He hears a lot about wolves, mountain lions and grizzly bears. The Blackfoot Valley's wolf population began to surge in about 2007, Kolbe says, and during those first few years, every wolf sighting—even every wolf-track sighting—was a big deal to hunters. Those sightings are less remarkable now. "Even sightings of full packs by some folks doesn't merit a wave-over to tell you about it, like it would have five years ago," he says.
But grizzlies are a different story. Just this morning, Kolbe says, a grizzly sow with two cubs commandeered a whitetail buck before the woman who had shot it even had a chance to tag it. "The bear got what it wanted and she doesn't need another tag and can hunt another day," Kolbe says. "But it was a close call."
Just a week before there was a similar incident, which was described to Kolbe as a "Mexican standoff" with a sow. "Forty yards away. Locking eyes. Somebody's going to draw," he says. "Eventually, things ended well.
"That's just real common stuff," Kolbe continues, "and thankfully we haven't had anyone hurt, that I'm aware of, by a grizzly in the Blackfoot since 2001, when that fella was killed on the [Blackfoot-Clearwater] game range."
For all Kolbe's years in the field, and the stories he's heard on cold weekends in this run-down trailer, he says hunters know specific areas in the Blackfoot better than he or any FWP staffer.
"Like this guy," he says.
A white-haired man, sweating with his jacket off, steps into the trailer. His name is Steve Wallace. He just pulled up with a quartered bull elk in the back of his truck, the first elk to pass through the check station all day. His son shot it early in the morning.
"This was a bit of a bitch," Wallace groans.
He and Kolbe chit-chat for a bit. Then Wallace says, "We saw lion tracks today. Every time I see lion tracks it reminds me of it."
"It" happened two years ago.
Wallace and his son Court were hunting near Lincoln. Wallace carried a rifle, but he almost didn't bother to bring it, since he had already filled his elk tag and didn't have a deer tag. Some snow had fallen. They split up, and Wallace headed up a ridge, where he spotted large mountain lion tracks. But those tracks disappeared as the day wore on and the sun melted the snow.
In the afternoon, while Wallace moved along a game trail below the crest of a ridge, he heard movement in the trees above him, followed by a very low, sustained growl"Unlike any growl I had ever heard," he says. A second later, Wallace saw a large lion, about 60 feet away, appear out of the trees, crouching, quickly gliding toward him.
"As the cat approached I shouldered the gun and fired," Wallace says. "There was no time to aim, only react...The whole scope was just full of brown hair.
"When I shot," he continues, "the cat jumped into the air and went right by me on my left side and it was clawing at the ground wildly." When it passed him, "I felt like I could almost reach out and touch it."
The cat tumbled 30 or 40 yards down the hill and stopped at the base of a tree. It wasn't moving. Wallace pulled out his cellphone and called Court.
"Court, I was just attacked by a mountain lion," he remembers saying, "and I had to shoot it."
"Did you kill it?"
"I think so."
Just as Wallace said that the lion limped away from the tree and into thick cover.
"No, the cat is not dead," he said, and hung up the phone.
But Wallace had lost sight of the animal. He moved uphill to where the lion had been and found a partially eaten whitetail doe. Then he crept toward the tree where it had stopped after being shot, and found a pool of blood the size of a paper plate. But there was no blood trail, and no more snow to reveal the lion's tracks and whereabouts. He clutched his rifle, its safety off, and left.
"Forty-two years in the woods and I never felt threatened—ever," Wallace says. "I had many bear encounters and never felt threatened. This cat was going to eat me, or at least attack me. It was scary."
But he still always follows predator tracks.
"I tell the kids, 'It's a good thing we're seeing predator tracks everywhere we go,'" he says. "'That's a good sign. They're in here hunting right along with us. And if you don't see any predator tracks, there probably isn't any game there. So go somewhere else.'"
Back at Jeff Darrah's kitchen table in Stevensville, he tells the inside story of one of the biggest poaching cases in Montana history, one of the hallmarks of his career.
In the early 2000s, wardens who worked the Seeley Lake area suspected that a man named Dean Ruth and his family were poaching animals—a lot of them. Across the country, in northwestern Pennsylvania, where the Ruths also owned property, wardens suspected the same; the Pennsylvania Game Commission had been mailed a photograph of two men, their faces concealed under hoods, posing with an apparently poached trophy whitetail buck. They were "taunting them, rubbing it in their face," Darrah says.
In November 2002, after gathering enough evidence for a search warrant, Darrah and Warden Captain Mike Moore knocked on the door of the Ruths' double-wide trailer, and Dean Ruth's wife Renita let them in.
The walls, Darrah says, were completely covered in antlers, more than 100 of them. Deer. Elk. Moose. Antelope.
They walked into the kitchen and noticed a familiar photograph on the refrigerator. It was of two men with a trophy buck, matching the photograph sent to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, only the two men's hoods were off.
Over in the corner, Darrah spotted two rifles with silencers. Then he saw the same whitetail buck from the photograph mounted on the wall. The wardens noted that every single rack had a kill date written on them in black marker. They found storage bins full of hundreds of photographs of dead animals and a bear skull in the freezer.
In one of the rooms newspaper clippings were pinned to the wall. One was a news story from Pennsylvania about several decapitated deer being found. Another, Darrah says, was a personal ad that said something like, "If you can't get 'em right, go get 'em at night. Use a light," signed with the suspect's initials.
"It was kind of like 'Criminal Minds' or something," Darrah says. "You got some guy who's keeping trophies of his serial murders. It was the same thing, only it was wildlife."
In 2004, a federal judge sentenced Dean Ruth to four months in prison. Later that year, a state judge sentenced him to 20 years in prison, with 15 years suspended.
Ruth was released from prison in 2005 and Darrah sat down with him for an exit interview. The warden found Ruth to be "very open and I think very truthful." Darrah says Ruth told him he'd been poaching since he was a kid, even though his grandfather had been a game warden in Pennsylvania. It was his dad, Ruth told Darrah, who encouraged the disregard for the law. He told Darrah that his dad didn't let him play sports, and instead he developed a prowess for poaching. Darrah remembers Ruth saying that the more he poached, the more impressed his dad was, "and he'd laugh and pat me on the back and say, 'Way to go.' So I was always looking for that affirmation from my dad that I was doing the right thing.'"
Telling the story makes Darrah emotional. He misses the work, misses being out on the land. He says he always felt a strong sense of ownership over the districts he worked.
"It was mine," he says. "I didn't own it on paper. But I felt like it was mine—it was my responsibility to protect that. And how dare you come into what I consider mine and do something illegal or poach or steal the wildlife from the rest of us who want to do it right."
Doing it right. That's the point. That's why Darrah tells one last story about a young boy who, years ago near Butte, shot his first elk. The boy thought he'd missed. But Darrah, watching from a distance through a spotting scope, saw the elk run off into the sage and fall down. Darrah drove over to the boy, who'd begun walking away, to tell him that he hit that elk. The boy hopped in Darrah's truck and they drove to where the elk lay. The boy walked over to it, and Darrah remembers him grinning "from ear to ear...giving me the thumbs up."
"You gotta pay attention when you shoot them," Darrah said. "Sometimes they don't just fall."
"What do I do now?" the boy asked.
"You got a knife?"
"Have you ever gutted anything before?"
"Not this big."
Darrah misses these moments, the opportunities to educate hunters, young and old, because if game wardens are successful, fewer wildlife tragedies happen.
And perhaps another gutted llama won't end up in the back of a pickup.