Feature Elk Herd

Mike Greener/Chronicle

A large elk herd make their way across Sourdough Road to an adjacent field Monday afternoon.

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This year, hunters legally reaped the rewards of healthy elk populations, but some hunters wreaked havoc, breaking the rules of ethical fair chase.

Many of the 527 elk taken this season in Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Region 3 were shot legally and ethically. But that wasn’t the case for hunters who participated in the incident that happened on Thanksgiving morning off Highway 12 near Sandhill Lane, just east of the Townsend Airport.

Hunters herded 300 to 400 elk with their vehicles, pushing them several miles to the Townsend site where they shot into the herd, killing or wounding many.

Eyewitnesses said 30 to 45 vehicles were involved.

FWP Warden Sgt. Dave Loewen said he didn’t have any wardens who were able to respond. His Townsend warden had been called down to the Three Forks area.

So the Broadwater County Sheriff’s Office was called to the scene.

Loewen said he didn’t know whether the sheriff’s office issued any citations. FWP hasn’t issued any citations yet but may follow up on the incident, Loewen said.

The Broadwater County Sheriff’s Office did not return calls on Tuesday.

A similar incident happened in the same area on Oct. 26, when 30 elk were killed and an unknown number were wounded.

On that day, a herd of about 500 elk moved between public and private land as hunters shot at them throughout the day.

As word of the herd spread through the use of cellphones, more hunters showed up. Some tried to use their vehicles to stop elk from escaping.

It’s illegal to use a vehicle to drive or harass wildlife, and it’s illegal to shoot game from a vehicle.

Three citations for failure to obtain landowner permission to hunt were issued for the Oct. 26 incident.

State Rep. Kelly Flynn has a ranch south of Townsend and was aware of both incidents, in addition to some others. His cousin Warren Flynn has property near where the incident happened.

Flynn said the elk were up in the mountains in Hunting District 391, and the hunters pushed them across Highway 12 to get into Hunting District 390, which has no restrictions on antlerless elk.

“I know that there was a lot of shooting off the public road and not everybody had permission,” Flynn said. “I know they killed a tremendous number of elk.”

Similar violations have occurred in the Madison Valley near Ennis.

Flynn said the misbehavior is becoming more common.

“It’s been pretty much an ongoing thing all season long, and I think it’s been statewide,” Flynn said. “The biggest concern I have is there are safety issues on these big shootouts, and I think we need to solve some of them before we do have an incident where someone is hurt.”

Flynn said hunters are abusing commonsense practices such as not shooting off a public road, signing up to enter block management property, wearing hunter orange, not party hunting and not shooting illegal bulls.

“It’s not just a few anymore,” Flynn said. “I think it’s a lot of the local community. We have more elk than ever before, and the elk are lower in the valleys. In that situation, people have a tendency to not think things through.”

Flynn said he was considering introducing a few bills to try to correct the problem, in addition to trying to increase block-management reimbursements.

“I need to ask the community whether we need to increase fines dramatically to get people to follow the law on some of these things that I just don’t think are that hard to follow,” Flynn said. “We need to find a way to put a stop to it or it’s going to be difficult to keep having a lot of support for hunting.”

FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim said FWP supports increasing fines for hunting violations. But sometimes, the things hunters do aren’t illegal -- even though they can be considered unethical.

“There’s a difference. As long as people are legal, there’s not a lot we can do,” Aasheim said. “But we’re with Kelly, if there are legal things to be addressed.”

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Laura Lundquist can be reached at llundquist@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2638.

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