Hunting season is cherished here in Montana. It puts food on tables. It places trophies on walls. It brings friends and families closer together. It is an opportunity to connect with nature and our fellow man.
Hunting is a tradition of respect.
At least, it’s supposed to be.
For 35 years, Francis Koenig has run cattle near Winnett, grazing his herd on a small strip of BLM land which passes through his private property. An easement across the Koenig ranch allows access to this public land—a half-mile of road belonging to “the people.”
In the past, hunters understood and appreciated this passage to public hunting grounds. They parked their vehicles and stalked their game by foot. Today, Koenig says he sees a different kind of hunter.
“It used to be poor people hunted to eat. Now it’s a rich man’s sport,” he explains. “They’re trespassing road hunters with expensive toys. They have their GPS, so they don’t read our signs. They bring in their big motor homes. They park on highly erodible land. They run elk through our herd. It’s a disaster trying to manage.”
In recent years, Koenig’s cattle guards have been busted, his signs shot apart, and several of his cattle slaughtered. A calf was struck and killed by a vehicle last season, then run over by another hunter chasing an elk along the road. Several people have pulled up on the shoulder and shot at pheasants in front of Koenig’s home.
“If you hear a shot, you duck,” he says, forcing a laugh. “So many people are running into one another on the road out there. Someone’s going to get hurt.”
In the past five years, Region 4 (the Fish, Wildlife & Parks block which Koenig resides in) has consistently seen more than 20,000 hunters to the area with an average annual harvest of approximately 5,500 elk (according to FWP elk harvest estimates). Increases in elk tags should theoretically improve elk management, but Koenig is seeing the opposite effect.
“It’s a free for all,” he says. “They’re running the elk constantly, but they never kill them.”
It starts during the shed, when retrieval dogs chase elk over (and through) fences to get them to drop their antlers. Then people come to survey the land on four wheelers and with drones before bow season starts. By the time rifle season comes around, Koenig says the elk have become such strong runners that they’re difficult to shoot.
“It drives the good hunters nuts,” he says.
Koenig isn’t too thrilled about it either. The more elk there are, the fewer resources there are for his cattle and the greater chance of disease. Furthermore, it is his responsibility to manage the BLM land that his cattle graze on. When people drive their ATVs across this strip or park their campers here, invasive weeds are regularly transferred from their tires. These vehicles also tear up the erodible earth, making it difficult for anything—except weeds—to grow.
Koenig believes too many people are trying to buy their way to a trophy elk, instead of learning about and appreciating the lands on which elk live.
Conservation of the resource, it seems, is falling out of style.
“As landowners, we can help them immensely. We have some responsible hunters that have been coming out here for years. We show them the game trails. They’re respectful,” explains Koenig. “My advice is show some respect for the land, animals, and caretakers of Montana. We’re not against hunting, but we’re responsible for these lands. We want to manage them for the next generation.”