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Montana changes big-game tagging law after hunter cited

Jim Latvala poses with a bull elk he shot on the opening day of the Montana season. (Courtesy of Warren Latvala)
Jim Latvala poses with a bull elk he shot on the opening day of the Montana season. (Courtesy of Warren Latvala)

HUNTING -- It's too late for a Minnesota hunter, but his bad experience last fall during an out-of-state elk hunt has prompted the Montana Legislature to change a law dealing with tagging big-game immediately upon kill.

Here's the update by Billings Gazette outdoor writer Brett French:

A story that reverberated across the West about a Minnesota hunter’s citation last fall for not tagging in a timely manner the bull elk he shot has resulted in the Montana Legislature passing a bill to clarify the issue.

House Bill 279 was signed by Gov. Steve Bullock on March 31.

“We think it’s a reasonable adjustment,” said Ron Aasheim, Fish, Wildlife and Parks communications and education bureau chief. “And it’s easier to enforce.”

The brothers involved in the incident — Jim and Warren Latvala — take some consolation in the fact that the law has been clarified to avoid confusion in the future, but they remain angry with FWP officials about how they were treated and the resolution of Jim Latvala’s case.

“Although it doesn’t do me any good, I am pleased that they changed an outdated (1950s) law,” Jim Latvala wrote in an email to The Gazette. “It will help those who hunt in Montana in the future and will allow them to enjoy the moment, pay their respects and take a few pictures of their hunt ... which is exactly what I was doing when the warden approached me.”

Without an official, public apology from FWP, Jim Latvala said he intends to sue the department for the cost of his hunt, which he estimated at $2,000. He is also seeking a public apology and a retraction of what he called false statements by FWP officials in news stories.

Opening day

The incident in dispute occurred on the opening day of the 2014 rifle season. Jim Latvala was hunting with his brother on private property close to Warren’s home outside Clyde Park in the Shields River Valley. After shooting a six-point bull, Warren went to get his tractor to move the elk while Jim stayed behind to begin field dressing the animal.

It was while preparing to field dress the elk that an FWP warden approached Jim Latvala and noted he had watched the hunt from the nearby highway. Accompanying the warden was a videographer for a popular Montana wardens’ television show.

Jim Latvala said he showed the warden his filled out tag when approached, but the warden’s supervisor contended that Latvala took more than 20 minutes to notch the tag, and the warden warned Latvala he may lose the elk because state law required hunters to immediately tag game.

The warden was called away to another incident. So after Warren Latvala returned with his tractor, the brothers hauled the elk back to Warren’s property to hang to cool. That’s when the warden showed up again, this time confiscating the elk and issuing a $135 citation.

After contesting the ticket three days later, the county attorney dropped the charge against Jim Latvala and FWP returned the head of the bull, but not the meat, which had been processed and distributed to a Livingston food bank. Jim Latvala claims he was told by the warden that the meat would be held until the case was resolved.

Public steps in

A story about the citation drew wide readership as it circulated in newspapers, on websites and hunting forums. A Minnesota newspaper also wrote about the incident.

As a result, Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, introduced HB279, which clarified that an animal must be tagged before the hunter leaves the site of the kill or before the animal is transported from the kill site. The bill sailed through both houses of the Legislature with overwhelming support.

“This legislation really clears all of that up,” Aasheim said.

But for the Latvalas, the citation and loss of the elk meat remains an open sore.

“Warren and I have both written to FWP director Jeff Hagener and to Governor Bullock,” Jim Latvala wrote. “Our letters have not produced anything as the FWP apparently can’t admit they made a mistake.”

Latvala said comments made by FWP officials in stories about the incident defamed the brothers, causing “stress and lingering psychological effects.”

Warren Latvala said in an email that there “was no reason for it all to happen in the beginning, and it could easily have been cut short afterward.” He said the presence of the videographer escalated the incident.

“The passage of HB279 into law does ease some of my concerns though, it’s a first step and shows, by their support, that FWP knew the old rule was wrong and would continue to be fought by the public,” Warren Latvala wrote.

Outdoors blog

Rich Landers writes and photographs stories and columns for a wide range of outdoors coverage, including Outdoors feature sections on Sunday and Thursday.

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