Necks are Swelling
and Nostrils Flaring

Game Range Ramblin's

Game Range Articles
by Mike Thompson,
FW&P wildlife biologist,
writing for the Pathfinder


September 13, 2001
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson


Inching forward in the lowest crouch that my knees and back can possibly support, slowly and carefully enough to keep any of the myriad rock chips from clattering down the nearly vertical talus slope, but hopefully fast enough to get a better view of the trailing bighorn ram before his morning feeding pattern carries him over the horizon.

Or, eating a slice of sausage from my hard-earned perch atop Monture Mountain, with my sweat-soaked tee shirt drying over a snag in early afternoon sun, overlooking all the goat country in Youngs Creek, hoping for one of those distant white rocks to get up and stretch.

Or, heart pounding at the sudden tremendous crash in the dark lodgepole pine along the bottom of Shanley Creek, straining with all my power to see whether it's the big bull moose I've been dreaming about, or the grizzly bear that made tracks and sewed serviceberry seeds all along my path earlier this morning.

These are just a few of the wonderful things I won't be doing this Saturday, September 15th, when bighorn sheep, mountain goat, and moose hunting seasons open across most of western Montana for those lucky few hunters whose applications were favored in the random computer drawing last spring. Still, for many of the rest of us whose applications were not drawn, or who didn't apply at all, there is an awakening of the spirit that comes with the change of season.

Like the bighorn rams that spent their lazy summers together in harmony, but all at once start testing each other in the crisp autumn air, occasionally stunning one another with thunderous head-to-head blows. Like the mountain goats that spent the heat of summer in their fleecy skivvies, now emerging from the cooler timbered ridges in full regalia, their pantaloons fluttering in the wind, looking the way goats are supposed to look once again. Like the bull moose with rutting season fast approaching, transformed from a gangly roadside attraction in summertime to a raging and formidable adversary if surprised at the wrong moment in fall. It's as though someone flipped a switch one day and everything abruptly changes. We feel it, too.

You need not be a hunter to experience it. I think this feeling is woven in the fabric of our humanity. But, I would offer that no one feels it more keenly than someone who hones it and lives by it. The hunter.

In Montana, the practical fact of the matter is that hunting of wild bighorn sheep, mountain goat or moose is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, if that. Yes, it's true that a hunter who kills a bighorn ram in a limited permit area is eligible to reapply for a sheep hunting opportunity after only a 7-year waiting period. The same is true for goat and moose. But, only about 154 limited sheep licenses, 307 goat licenses, and 613 moose licenses are issued across all of Montana each year (based on year 2000). And, many thousands of people apply for these limited licenses. Odds of drawing a license in any given year vary from about 1-in-20 to 1-in-170. Many avid hunters apply every year for 20 or 30 years or more before drawing their first license for these treasured opportunities. Some never draw one at all.

By definition, then, most of a Montana sheep, goat or moose hunter's life is spent in anticipation and practice. He or she packs into the Bob Marshall for the early backcountry hunting season (which also opens on Saturday), bugling for bull elk and glassing for big mulies in the goat rocks, whether many elk or deer are there or not. He explores the fishing in high mountain lakes, listening for the crack of fighting rams. He pays close attention on the ride in and out, searching for moose rubs and pellets along the stream courses. He stays physically fit and becomes familiar with the work of taxidermists in his area. And, he never passes up a chance to sample the fine meat of a sheep, goat or moose taken by a friend or acquaintance, and to learn about handling and cooking techniques.

They are the hunters whom we biologists are most likely to meet. Once they have drawn a license, no hunter takes his or her opportunity more seriously and puts more mental, physical and spiritual effort into it. Many of them will call, some will drop by, covering all their bases in preparation for the event they've dreamed about all their lives.

It is truly an honor and pleasure for others and me in Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to be a part of it. And, when you feel your neck swell a little and your nostrils flare this fall, embrace it. Pick your head up, look at a mountain, get on it if you can, and let your spirit out of its cage. At that moment, you'll feel just a little bit of what those lucky sheep, goat and moose hunters are feeling this year, and will carry in their souls for the rest of their lives.