Saturday morning we repeated the trip. Amazingly, for this part of the country, there was no wind. Elk were all over. Being Saturday there were three other vehicles filled with bundled people who were searching winter wapiti. As we returned home, I wondered how many of the others were hunters, and how many were not hunters, but just people who enjoyed Montana’s abundant elk and wildlife.
On the way up on Saturday Wende had made the comment that we take our beautiful spot for granted. I am guilty. I do. Hunters and non-hunters alike probably take the Sun River Game Range for granted. Most hunters, and I would guess, most non-hunters don’t appreciate the history surrounding formation of the Game Range.
For most of history, Montana has had plentiful wildlife. Our first game warden, Bruce Neal, had a set of mastodon tusks in his cabin museum at the entrance to Sun River Canyon. About 50 miles from here, on 14 June 1805, Captain Lewis shot a bison, forgot to reload his rifle and had to elude a grizzly bear by running into the Missouri River. On 8 July 1806, Captain Lewis’ party traveled close to, if not through, the present location of Augusta, Montana—my home. While there he recorded, “We saw a great number of deer, antelope, wolves and some barking squirrels, and for the first time caught a distant prospect of two buffaloes.” After the 1988 fire near my hunting camp, 20 miles into the Bob Marshall Wilderness I found a partially buried bison. I still have the skull. That bison had to have died about 100 years ago.
With the appearance of man abundant game diminished. Forest Service records indicate that in 1901 there were at least 2,295 cattle and 140 grazing on the North Fork of the Sun River for 6.5 months each year. Grazing of traditional elk habitat and “pot” hunters, those hunters who killed game to sell, depleted game levels. Elk that could not find food in their normal areas moved to ranges that normally served only bighorn sheep, which reduced sheep numbers.
Elk estimates in the area for 1910 ranged from 300 to 1,500. This was just after the conservationist movement that had been popularized by Theodore Roosevelt. Some people could recall, and regret how bison herds had been eliminated. In 1913, the Sun River Game Preserve was created. Biologists then and today believe that the preserve was and is bad science. Regardless, it has remained.
In 1934 there were between 2,500 and 3,000 elk in the Sun River area. The Preserve created summering areas for elk, but there was no public land outside the mountains for the elk to winter. As the summer elk herd grew, there needed to be wintering place for the elk. Many found feed on cattle ranches.
Most cattle ranchers will allow some, but not many elk grazing on their land. On of the most effected ranches was the Circle H, owned by C. R. Rathbone. The Sun River Game range includes land that was the Circle H. On 21 October 1938, Rathbone placed a three-column ad in the Great Falls Tribune. It said he had fed over 500 elk on his property for the past five years. The ad also requested people with machine guns and other means to help kill 1,000 elk. He promised no prosecution by law enforcement.
In 1947, the original purchase of land was made. Since then more land has been added. Today the Game Range includes 20,000 acres of state owned and state leased land.
Saturday morning Wende and I saw more than 600 elk on the Game Range. We took a few photos, watched the sun rise and marveled at how man’s purchase of some land has created hunting and non-hunting enjoyment for people from all over the world.
Maybe now, I don’t take it quite so much for granted.