Last week, a citizen’s advisory group to Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks started fundraising to produce an education campaign in direct response to controversial "crowd-shooting" incidents last November.
Broadwater County Undersheriff Wynn Meehan was there on Thanksgiving day when hundreds of elk near Townsend were hazed by dozens of hunters in trucks for miles before boxing them in and firing on the herd. The next day, Meehan said some of the elk split off from the main herd and onto private land.
"I come by and here's 12 cows and calves standing by the fence and I went 'Oh, goodness gracious', and it started from that point. There was car after car after car with people trying to get permission," The guy [landowner] was; 'No, just leave them alone.' They'd [“hunters”] go out there and creep along the fence of where they did have permission to try to get those elk to leave that property so that they could then shoot them. It was just like; 'Leave the elk alone'," Meehan said.
Mike England with the Region 3 Citizen’s Advisory Council says the two elk shootings motivated him and his fellow hunters, outfitters and ranchers to start the Hunt Right campaign to educate people who may not know much about hunting or encourage those with bad hunting habits to get their act together.
England says he personally had to unlearn some of the questionable hunting methods he saw growing up.
"And I went out with these guys and they were shooting from their trucks, and blasting away and shooting animals without the proper tags. As a young man I thought….this is just what people do," England explained.
There’s no law against groups of hunters shooting into elk herds, but England says those who do don’t get much respect either.
Jim Posewitz, a long-time Montana hunter, author and conservationist, says hunter education is exactly the right response to these types of crowd-shootings.
"So there’s need for continuing communication, continuing education, and adult education, to convince people that this is not a casual activity, this hunting, this is serious business."
80-year-old Posewitz founded Orion the Hunter’s Institute in 1993, and is perhaps best known in Montana for his book, "Beyond Fair Chase: The Ethic and Tradition of Hunting".
He says mass elk shootings like the ones near Helena and Townsend might be hunting disasters, but we’ve come a long way from when Montana was the bone-yard of North America.
"Today we have an urban dear plan in Helena, we have bears in our orchards and we have goose poop on every golf shoe in the state. That’s a pretty remarkable achievement," says Posewitz.
By the late 1800s, Posewitz says hunters had decimated bison and elk herds across Montana and the rest of the country.
"There were some states that didn’t have deer!"
In 1887, President Teddy Roosevelt, a passionate hunter himself shot and killed one of the last remaining wild bison on earth. As the gunsmoke curled over the barrel of his rifle, Posewitz says Roosevelt realized hunters needed to make a change.
Roosevelt and conservation advocates called on hunters and outdoorsman across the country to stop the dramatic abuse of wildlife and develop a code of ethics for themselves. And today, Posewitz says elk herds are 10 times larger, and wild bison are no longer on the brink of extinction in part because of efforts by hunters to manage themselves.
But some hunters feel they don’t need a code, as long as they’re not breaking the law.
"And in that mix you’re going to have people who just don’t care. For them, the law is the boundary."
Posewitz says media campaigns like the one being launched now have appeared sporadically since at least the 1930s, when political cartoonists scolded people for nearly hunting deer to death.
"This may not be the final answer, but by God we’ve got to start doing something about this. And that’s exactly what they’re doing."
Mike England and the rest of the citizen’s advisory council behind the Hunt Right campaign hopes to do more than remind hunters to be ethical. They also want to send a message to people who aren’t familiar with Montana hunting culture.
"There’s so many people moving to Montana who come from the cities or they come from places where nobody hunts. They don’t understand hunting. And then they see these shootouts on TV or in the newspaper and they think ‘Oh my gosh, these people are horrible! Those poor animals!’ And so, part of our campaign is public awareness. There are good hunters out there. Most of us are good hunters," England says.
Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks has pledged $5,000 in seed money to help the Hunt Right campaign get started. England says his group hopes to raise about $30,000 from other organizations and the public to finish producing the educational series in time for the 2015 hunting season.