When James and Warren Latvala felt like they were mistreated by a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks game warden, they sent letters to newspapers around the state. They ended up getting what they wanted — an article outlining their side of the story.
The public response to Latvala’s story has been interesting. The game warden who ticketed James Latvala and confiscated his bull elk is receiving much of the outrage. Also drawing the ire of many is the fact the warden was accompanied that day by a cameraman from the reality show “Wardens,” which follows a handful of Montana FWP game wardens around throughout the year filming their work.
What is lacking in the vehement response is much perspective.
Let’s take a step back. The day James Latvala shot his six point bull in the Shields Valley and neglected to punch his elk tag for about 25 minutes, a herd of elk in White Gulch east of Canyon Ferry Lake were shot up by hunters who had little concern for safety or the concept of fair chase. And countless other game violations were occurring around the state. Opening day is a busy one for wardens.
The White Gulch incident drew a lot of coverage in the IR and other newspapers around the state, but the simple fact is it was one incident of many similar incidents from this past big game season. In the Shields Valley, where the Latvalas were hunting, along with the Paradise and Madison Valleys, indiscriminate shooting into herds of elk that have moved out onto valley benches and bottomland happens all too often. And when it does, the public and other hunters implore FWP to work harder to get control of the situation and stop that kind of behavior from happening.
Not only that, but sportsmen’s groups from around the state call for hunters to do a better job of policing themselves, which means demanding better behavior of fellow hunters and turning in those who ignore the law.
But the fact is controlling such behavior requires wardens to be vigilant in monitoring hunters and making sure citations are written when the law is broken.
Game wardens around Montana and the West have a pretty thankless job. They largely work alone and nearly everyone they encounter during hunting season is armed. They drive the front country from sun up to sun down and sometimes spend days on end in the backcountry, away from home and family. When the rest of us are enjoying hunting season, wardens are out chasing poaching reports and trying to track down leads on people who have broken the law. They often cover areas larger than one county in size and simply can’t be everywhere they need to be.
But when ethical hunters see incidents like what happened in White Gulch, we want the game warden to be there immediately. We want the letter of the law followed and the perpetrators punished.
The incident with the Latvala’s in the Shields Valley has two sides and what we didn’t hear from FWP, and probably shouldn’t have expected to, is the detailed reason why the game warden wrote the ticket.
Sam Sheppard, regional supervisor for FWP Region 3, put it this way: “(There were) circumstances and actions that lead him (the warden) to believe, in his professional judgment, that this elk was not going to be tagged.”
Ethical hunters want game laws enforced. We want game wardens who witness incidents, to use their common sense and available evidence to write citations and give teeth to laws that too often aren’t followed.
We’ve seen this year what happens when hunters get out of control. From elk left maimed in White Gulch, to elk left rotting in fields north of Whitehall, to a young bull moose shot and left in the Little Belt Mountains. When these sorts of problems face our state, and the outcry for change becomes as loud as it has, criticism of a game warden for enforcing the law seems misguided at best and double-speak at worst.