Policing the Woods

By Beacon Staff

COLUMBIA FALLS – On an overcast morning in the middle of archery hunting season, Perry Brown quietly stepped through the brush of a wild piece of land near Hungry Horse Reservoir. A .40-caliber handgun clung to his right hip. Underneath his camouflage coat, a bright gold badge with a star in the middle read “Montana Game Warden.”

Brown had recently received a tip from a hunter about an illegal baiting site. Someone had reportedly set up a salt lick to attract elk and deer, which is illegal and carries a maximum possible penalty of $1,000, six months in jail and the loss of hunting, fishing and trapping privileges.

With GPS coordinates of the possible site in hand, Brown set out to investigate. He hiked along a game trail for almost a mile before stopping at the edge of an open meadow. He stepped out of the brush and approached a pile of rocks that looked organized. Brown rubbed one of the rocks with his finger and stuck it to his mouth, dabbing the front of his tongue. He nodded his head.

He continued walking around the trampled meadow. Brown pointed at an elk footprint that was as big as a clenched fist. Then he pointed up into the trees. A pair of tree stands built like small forts were hanging high above.

“This job is kind of a cat and mouse game,” Brown said later. “That’s how I look at it.”

Based in Columbia Falls, Brown has been a game warden for 24 years.

His job is one of the oldest in the state. Game wardens are responsible for protecting thousands of acres of wildlife resources, ensuring fair chase and keeping sportsmen honest year-round. The first were hired in 1901, which was 12 years after Montana officially became a state. As retired warden Mike Mehn wrote in his essay “A Look Back – And Ahead,” the original wardens were instructed to “enforce the law without fear or favor and to do everything in their power to inform and enlighten the people regarding game protection and game laws in Montana.”

Brown is one of 74 game wardens in the state. But as a recent story out of Helena detailed, game wardens are on the verge of becoming endangered species.

Because of low pay in comparison to other enforcement agencies and erratic work hours, the already low number of game wardens has continued to shrink, according to a story by Eve Byron of the Helena Independent Record. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is currently short six wardens as hunting season begins.

Brown agreed with the story’s assessment of the current field of game wardens. Low pay, long hours, a huge area of responsibility — being a game warden is not an easy vocation, he said.

“I just put in the hours and it’s something I love to do, so I don’t mind. I didn’t get into this field to get rich. If I can make a living I’m satisfied,” Brown said. “But our numbers are going down because the other law enforcement agencies are paying more. So we get young guys that get a start and say, ‘Hey, I can work for the highway patrol and make more money and I don’t have to be on call 24 hours a day.’”

Perry Brown, a Fish, Wildlife and Parks game warden based in Columbia Falls, takes a picture of climbing spikes screwed into a tree into leading to a deer stand west of Hungry Horse Reservoir.

Montana is also one of the lowest-paying states, which leads to wardens moving away, Brown said.

Born in Kalispell and raised in Libby, Brown, 45, covers an area that stretches from the Flathead River to the Continental Divide, then from Glacier National Park south around Hungry Horse Reservoir to the Bob Marshall and Great Bear wildernesses. It’s a lot of territory for one man, and it’s the same for other wardens across the state.

“When we’re full-staffed, we’re still understaffed,” Brown said.

Just last week, Brown returned from a week in the Bob Marshall, where he traveled with pack horses and checked on hunters.

General deer and elk rifle season begins Oct. 22, when the majority of hunters across the state head into the woods. Brown has prepared himself for long days.

“My wife’s understanding,” Brown said. “I’ll get word back that I’m not going to be home tonight or I’m going to be late.”

Trespassing and poaching are two of the biggest infractions Brown confronts during hunting season, he said. Last month, in a high-profile poaching incident, eight deer were found shot and some had their heads removed outside of Whitefish.

“There’s a number of people that are trying to cheat the system. I guess that’s why we’re out there,” Brown said.

A major resource for game wardens is the 1-800-TIP-MONT phone line. Created in 1985, the phone line allows callers to remain anonymous and helps wardens catch poachers. The phone line receives roughly 1,700-2,000 tips a year, according to FWP.

“We can’t be everywhere, so we really rely on the sportsmen’s eyes and ears to help us out,” Brown said. “We’re all in it together to help preserve and conserve the fish and wildlife resource. I like to think they have as much at stake as I do.”

Brown said poaching seems to be decreasing slightly every year because the “sporting public are less tolerant of people shooting things. It used to be kind of a way of life; people would shoot a deer to live off of and the neighbors would look the other way.”

Brown was a warden trainee in Bozeman in 1983 straight out of college. After a couple of years, he transferred to Chinook where he became the district game warden. In 1993, Brown had the opportunity to return home and he took it, transferring again to the Flathead Valley to work in Columbia Falls.

In 1996, Brown earned the state’s top honor for game wardens, the Shikar-Safari Club International’s Wildlife Officer of the Year for Montana. The award cited, among other important attributes, Brown’s backcountry enforcement skills, his rapport with sportsmen, his extensive involvement with the local hunter’s education courses and his efforts to protect native bull trout as key reasons for honoring him.

In recent years, Brown has become certified in flying planes and helicopters and has been a firearms and hand-to-hand combat instructor.

“I love doing what I’m doing. And I’m always looking at myself and ways to advance,” he said.

Brown inspected a ladder of spikes climbing up a tree. The metal footholds lined up the trunk to a tree stand that looked fresh out of the package. Across the meadow, another older one sat dormant.

There were no signs of recent kills, but Brown was certain of one thing.

“Somebody’s trying to cheat the system,” he said.

Later that night, Brown would eat a quick dinner at home with his family before going to Columbia Falls High School to help teach the fall hunter’s education course. His focus for the class would be teaching young hunters fair chase, the cornerstone of hunting ethics.

But first he took a few pictures of the bait site and wrote down notes before preparing to hike back out to his truck.

“It just looks like somebody’s had a baiting station here for awhile,” he said. “I can tell by the use it’s been going on for awhile. And they’ll be re-baiting that. They’ll be back.”

And so will Brown.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.