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Shooting elk in a barrel
Russell Chatham
February 02, 1976
Worthy as the aim may be, the special season in Montana looks like a massacre, and it raises questions about the best way to thin a herd
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February 02, 1976

Shooting Elk In A Barrel

Worthy as the aim may be, the special season in Montana looks like a massacre, and it raises questions about the best way to thin a herd

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The early nightfall of winter has closed tightly upon the edge of the Yellowstone plateau. A blizzard is lashing the town of Gardiner, Mont. as a man, an outlander, walks from the Town Cafe over to the K-Bar, wondering what there is to do here at night. As he passes the Two-Bit Saloon he sees, across the street, a bull elk walking up the sidewalk. The animal's pace is slow, like that of a patient in a nursing home going down the hall to the bathroom. A dog runs out of a nearby yard and starts barking at the elk, which stops and turns, looking anything but intimidated. The dog hesitates, then skulks back into its yard. The elk ambles on toward a gas station.

In the bar it is warm and noisy. "My uncle shot an elk once that was over a mile away," a man announces to an audience largely distracted by a comely blonde who is stretched over the pool table trying for a shot on the one ball. "Just fired into the herd and got one," he goes on, anticipating a reaction that is not forthcoming.

"Hell," another man interrupts loudly, "in the old days we saw a lot of that on the 'firing line.' I remember an opening day at Deckard Flat. Just getting light, not quite shooting time. Must have been 500 elk standing out there. I said to myself, I ain't waiting another minute and I dropped one. The minute I fired the whole valley opened up. I mean those boys cut loose. Myself, I hit a dozen. When it was over all the elk were dead or run out of sight."

A young man playing a game of Foozball is horrified. "There ought to be a bounty on some of these guys," he says, though not loudly enough to be overheard by the storyteller who happens to be very large.

The following morning, the second Saturday in January, is brilliantly clear. While people shovel their walks, some elk are sitting in the sun opposite the Town Cafe, chewing their cuds. Across the street in front of the restaurant, a number of pickup trucks are parked. Without exception, all have dead elk in back. It is the second day of the 1976 special elk season at Gardiner. So far, 79 gunners have passed through the Department of Fish and Game's check station and they have killed 79 elk, almost all of them bulls. "One hundred percent success," an official notes with pride.

Not all Montanans share his feeling about the special season. Through clenched teeth a great many will hiss "slaughter" at mention of the shoot designed to thin the population of Yellowstone Park's northern herd. Others, less emotional but still openly disgusted, call it the Deckard Flat Massacre.

Such anger is, historically, well aimed: the old Gardiner shoots—the "firing line," as they were known until they were called off in 1967—were a travesty of hunting. Anyone with a high-powered rifle, a license and an elk tag could wander among the wintering elk, shooting them at will. In contrast, the current eight-weekend special season is highly organized, both in rationale and practice. It becomes logical, almost inevitable, when explained by Arnold Foss of the Montana Department of Fish and Game. "We manage the elk herds the same way a rancher does his cattle. We survey our range and from there go on to determine how many elk that range will support. Right now we have too many, a total of about 12,000 elk in Yellowstone Park, nearly 2,500 of which are wintering on land outside of the park that is under the jurisdiction of the Fish and Game Department." Overgrazing has been a continuing problem in Yellowstone Park and on surrounding Forest Service lands almost since records have been kept. Although the range is shared by deer, antelope and bighorn sheep, it is the elk, because of their large size and high rate of reproduction, that are held primarily responsible.

A certain amount of natural attrition is expected because of carnivorous predators during the lean months. However, when winter kill is as high as it has been recently, many carcasses go untouched. During the unusually long winter of 1974-75 an estimated 2,000 northern herd elk died of starvation. It follows that many of the surviving animals have also suffered the debilitating effects of famine.

In the past, the park rangers have killed and live-trapped elk to strengthen the herd. The meat of those killed went to state hospitals, prisons and Indian reservations, while the trapped animals were moved to other locations within the state, in some cases establishing healthy herds where there were none before. But moving elk is enormously expensive, and now, because of the earlier plantings, most suitable areas have adequate elk populations; adding more animals would amount to transporting the problem at Yellowstone to another location. Therefore, the Department of Fish and Game authorized this year's special season.

To obtain one of the 2,000 special permits, you had to apply before July 1, 1975. But before you may shoot on the date selected for you by a computer, you must check in at Corwin Springs. There, fish and game personnel first make sure you have a valid conservation license, an unused elk tag and the special permit. Next you are shown a map of the 144-square-mile area that is open, and carefully instructed about the use of access roads and the location of private property. Then you will hear a brief but explicit talk about your responsibilities in the field: pick one animal, be sure you are within range, shoot carefully to make a clean kill, dress it and tag it immediately and properly. Before leaving the area you must again check in at Corwin Springs where your kill will be recorded and examined.

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