On opening morning of elk season, Jim and I were about a half-mile from the house. Jim is my younger brother by seven years, a 65-year-old decorated ex-Marine who served his hitch in Vietnam and is currently a registered guide in Minnesota.
About 30 elk came out of the timber and Jim dropped a 6x6 bull before the season was an hour old. The rest disappeared into the timber. Jim was thrilled with his second-ever elk, his first six-pointer. We took some photos, then called my wife to pick me up to get a tractor. Jim took a couple more pictures, then validated and attached his elk tag.
When I reached the highway, I noted a pickup parked on a hill at the edge of the right-of-way. The local game warden stepped out and asked if I had shot the bull. I said my brother had, so he asked to see my license. While he was checking it I noted a second person by his truck with a video camera. After he was asked twice about his buddy, he responded that “Mike” was a television cameraman. He then said he might confiscate Jim’s bull.
Shocked, I asked why. He said they had watched and filmed the whole thing, and Jim had not tagged the bull for 21 minutes after arriving instead of “immediately,” as called for in the regulations. In disbelief, I left with my wife to get a tractor.
The warden and “Mike” walked down to where Jim was field dressing the bull. He identified himself as a warden and told Jim to cut off the tag taped to the antlers. Jim did so, and the warden checked to see if it was correctly filled out. He then advised Jim that he might lose the bull because he hadn't filled out and attached the tag “immediately,” but would see us later at the ranch.
We got the bull to the ranch and were hosing out the cavity before the warden and “Mike” arrived about noon. “Mike” stayed on the highway right-of-way, where he filmed and recorded everything. The warden pulled in, announced that he was going to confiscate the bull and wrote Jim a $135 citation. We were incredulous but kept our tempers in check.
Jim asked what the “immediately” in the regulations meant time-wise. Having obviously been asked the question before, the warden had a smart answer ready, replying, “It’s in the dictionary, look it up.” He stated the head would be held in an evidence room and the meat processed and frozen pending the court results. The warden then winched the bull into his truck but, instead of turning toward Livingston to cool the bull for processing, he turned away from town to the check station in Clyde Park.
Jim pleaded innocent in justice court on a Tuesday and went to see the county attorney for “discovery.” The county attorney asked Jim and I to write up statements, and later obviously talked with the warden. He called on Thursday and told Jim the facts were not in dispute, but the charges were being dropped as it was clear that Jim was not trying to avoid tagging the bull. He said Jim could pick up the head, but the warden sergeant had told him the meat had been processed and given to charity. We picked up the head but didn't buy the sergeant’s story about the meat being processed and donated to charity. We saw the bull still crammed into the warden’s truck six hours after the kill at 71 degrees. By then the meat would be garbage.
Hunters beware! Fish, Wildlife and Parks is cooperating with an outfit producing “Montana warden” programs for television. Any minor near-infraction of the regulations can be recorded and pursued at a warden’s discretion. The subjective term “immediately” can be interpreted as a warden sees fit. Jim paid $1,000 for his “combo” license and another $1,000 in travel expenses for his 6x6 rack.
But on the upside, the warden had the “bust” recorded! After all, there’s no program unless there’s a violation observed and punished, and some folks put a high value on getting their mug on television.