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'Crowd Shooting' Incident Near Helena

A “crowd-shooting” incident on the east side of Canyon Ferry Reservoir last weekend has opened a discussion about hunter ethics; specifically, when is it OK to shoot a game animal?

Justin Feddes says the shooting in the White's Gulch area outside Helena started at first light last Sunday morning.

"If I had to guess, I'd say probably around 30 elk were killed. Probably 18 - 20 bulls, the rest were probably cows. We had two wounded," said Feddes.

Feddes, a Fish Wildlife and Parks game warden based in Townsend, says one of the mortally wounded animals was a young bull. The other a cow. A properly licensed hunter was allowed to cull the cow while Feddes and a colleague were forced to track-down and dispatch the spike. The meat from both animals was harvested.

Meanwhile, Feddes notes there's no way to know how many other elk were wounded in the crossfire, but still able to stick with the herd. He says game wardens were outnumbered by hunters - many of whom scrambled to pack up their kills and quickly leave the scene, so they were unable to determine who might’ve shot animals that ran away.

He says there's nothing necessarily illegal about herd shooting, but adds it clearly presents problems.

"Someone's shooting into the herd, shooting at a specific elk, and hits another elk that's directly behind it because they're in a large herd. That can be an [illegal] over-limit of elk, depending on what they shoot, what kind of tags they have," Feddes says. 

"Whether or not it's ethical is up for debate. It's kind of your own opinion, I guess. I would consider it to be unethical. I don't really consider it to be hunting, not the way I was raised. Hunting usually takes place up in the hills and there's a little bit of effort put into it rather than just surrounding a herd of elk and then shooting as they come off."

White's Gulch is a heavily checkerboarded area of public and private land. Feddes says conflicts are common there.  In fact, he says a few shoving matches broke out between the hunters and local outfitters last Sunday. No charges were filed as a result of scuffles, but three citations were issued - mostly for hunting without landowner permission.

Feddes says he believes most of those involved had good intentions.

"They see those big herds of elk down here. Sometimes people walk all day in the hills and not see any elk. So they get a little frustrated and they see this big group down here and it gives them an opportunity to go in there and shoot," Feddes says.

"It's a very easy opportunity to get into trouble, especially down there. You could be on property you're not supposed to be. If you're not paying real close attention you can get a trespass or hunting without landowner permission [citation] in a hurry. You could also wound things pretty easily if you shoot through something or just miss. You can hit something you don't wanna hit."

Helena's Jim Posewitz is a hunter and conservation advocate. He  founded the hunter ethics organization, "Orion The Hunters Institute." He did not witness the Sunday herd shoot, but says he's heard plenty about it from concerned locals.

"All were expressing their disgust at, I guess, the fact that they thought that was just an atrocious pattern of behavior by some people who were out there trying to kill an elk," said Posewitz.

He says herd shooting clearly defies the concept of "fair chase" hunting.

"The whole underpinning of the North American conservation model is that hunting is a sporting activity. The underpinnings to the fact that it is not an animal slaughter. This isn't a meat market. The experience that people generally are seeking is  the benefits they get from being outdoors participating in a hunting relationship."

Posewitz notes Montana's earliest European settlers decimated local wildlife.

"That lead to a conservation epiphany among hunters to form non-profit hunting organizations to introduce the sporting code, to begin the restoration of wildlife in North America," Posewitz said. "Now those elk that stood out in that field over there, they are the result of the restoration process that put wildlife back out on the Montana landscape."

Game Warden Justin Feddes says herd shootings pose not only potentially legal and ethical problems, they’re also a drain on resources. He says he, two other FWP wardens and a Bureau of Land Management ranger spent 12 hours dealing with the aftermath of last weekend’s White’s Gulch incident.  

Feddes says they have more important things to do than babysit a single elk herd and a group of hunters.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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