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."