Misfires 

Strange but true Montana hunting tales

Page 4 of 4

"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.'"



'Criminal Minds'

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.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY KOU MOUA

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?"

"Yeah."

"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.

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