By Michael Howell
On December 13, the Bitterroot Star published a letter to the editor concerning an alleged hunting violation by a school official based on rumors circulating in the community, which stated, “Just wondering why everyone has been quiet about a high-ranking school official and his son allegedly shooting two trophy elk on private land and having them confiscated by FWP for poaching. It should be public knowledge.”
The newspaper subsequently received additional requests for accurate information about the allegations. One of those requests came from the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association, a well-respected organization in the valley that has had a longstanding policy of requesting that the courts, law enforcement and the press put these incidents before the public to increase awareness of the issues involved.
Subsequently the newspaper obtained the charging documents which named the individuals involved and outlined the allegations. The story was published in the December 20th issue of the paper.
After the story was published, RCFW President Tony Jones thanked the Bitterroot Star for following up on the organization’s request and stated, “We also appreciate the fact that in any case like this the person has the right to present his or her side of the issue before the court and get a fair hearing before the judge.”
Phone calls were made to Stevensville School Principal Brian Gum and messages were left offering him the chance to comment on the charges prior to publication. Gum did contact the Star after publication of the newspaper article to tell his side of the story.
Gum described himself and his son as “stand-up hunters” and called the incident “an honest mistake.” Both men had tags for bull elk and had the permission of the landowner to hunt on her property, located along Homeacres Road between Groff Lane and Willoughby Road. Since the citations were issued, the owner of the property, Josette Hackett, who teaches agricultural education at the school, has written a letter to the court in support of the hunters and stated that they are welcome to come back and hunt on her place in the future.
Gum said that he has hunted deer in the area for 31 years without incident. He said that he and his son had no intention to violate any laws and that they assumed at the time that they were in Hunting District 261 which allows for the taking of bull elk. HD 261 borders HD 262 where the incident occurred, a hunting district where taking bulls is not permitted.
“We always assumed that we were in HD 261,” said Gum. He said that when Game Warden Justin Singleterry showed up almost immediately after the elk were shot and cited them, that, “it blew our minds.”
In his defense, Gum said that the description of the hunting district at the back of the regulations was “vague and difficult to decipher.” The area is described as being between the Big Ditch and the eastside Highway. But Gum claims that there are three ditches running through the area with no signage naming the ditches and no signage designating the hunting district boundary. He said that they did not have a GPS and “used the landmarks that we thought were accurate.” He said in the future he would definitely be using a GPS and had already purchased one. He said that due to the vagueness of the hunting district descriptions there was really no other way to be certain exactly where they were.
“We believed we were past the ditch and past Sunset Bench,” he said. “It would be great to see some boundaries marked.”
According to Montana Code, the law against taking a game animal in a district where it is not permitted is enforceable whether it is done “knowingly or purposely or negligently.”
An omnibus hearing is set for January 4, in the Justice Court of Judge Jim Bailey.