“Look at all the elk,” I pointed out the herd next to highway 84 to my little girl in the back seat. There were about 40 head packed tight into a ball within 100 yards of the road.
As we drove up closer a junior bull tried to break ranks and cross the highway, but oncoming traffic spooked him and soon he was back in the ball. It moved like a fish ball making it nearly impossible to pick out an individual animal.
Stress and panic were evident in the herd as we drove by. Two more failed attempts to break away and cross the road happened. The panic seemed to be heightening.
Just past the heard we found the cause of the panic. Several trucks were already on the side of the road with hunters in various states of disarray hopping the barbwire fence with their rifles and hurrying up the ridge to try and get their shot. Two more rigs whipped to the side of the road to insert themselves in the melee. A feeling of dread crept into my head, this was the unit 311 late season cow elk hunt I was planning on participating in.
The morning after the end of the general deer and elk season I stood in Shedhord Sports in Ennis with my body still hurting from a final weekend searching far, wide and deep in the mountains for elk or even deer. The dismay of this year’s failure was being replaced by hope as a member of their staff whipped out the regs and an atlas and went to work getting me excited about the opportunity to take a cow elk all the way until February 15.
It seemed too good to be true that there was a hunt so close to Bozeman for so long into the Winter. I’d been warned that I would likely have to deal with removing a fetus from a late season cow, but was willing to deal with that in order to have the chance to fill the freezer for another year. We’d been spoiled by a great harvest the year before and were in the habit of eating steak on a regular basis.
A couple weeks later, my late season was falling prey to the same thing that crippled my general season. Too much work and no time to get out into the field. I ran across my friend Vernon who was just back from Kentucky and eager to get out hunting and I shared what I had learned at Shedhorn with him. We made plans to go give it a run, but the morning we were supposed to go I woke with a fever and had to bail.
He returned from the hunt with his own tail of terror from unit 311. He found a herd of elk close to highway 84 on private land and set up to wait on a small rise for them to work their way onto a small patch of BLM land where he could legally shoot them.
As he weighted he watched as four different trucks pulled to the side of the road and four different hunters shot four different elk. All of this played out on private land while he waited to get his legal shot.
When he told me the story and about how he had called the warden and was told the landowner had also called in the incident I was shook. This was not the hunting that I knew or was interested in. Now I was watching almost the exact same scenario play out.
I appreciate that there are many in Montana who rely on hunting to provide food for their family. It’s part of my family’s culture, tradition to provide our own food. There is nothing my kids like more that elk steak seared with butter and onions in a cast iron skillet. We’ll be waiting until next year to have that again, so we don’t taste the fear and the sorrow that we saw on the side of highway 84.
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