hree nervous-making things right from the beginning: the thrill, but also challenge, of hunting new country for the first time; hunting with unfamiliar hunters for the first time; and frostbite, pain, and howling November snow-misery. All anyone talks about when they mention the Durfee Hills of central Montana is how cold it gets. And the wind. But when a couple of longtime board members of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA) invited me to go explore and elk hunt the hills, I said heck yes.
They—Doug Krings and John Sullivan—are traditional bowhunters, which is a church, a way of life for them, but they were kind enough to allow me to bring my grandfather’s old .270. “We need you to kill an elk,” Krings explained. “There are way too many.” We’ve been hearing that all our life, right? Should’ve been here yesterday.
“I talked to some hunters who just came out,” Krings added. “They saw five bulls down in the bottom of the meadow where we’re going.” Oh, the old elk in camp story, right?
“Not for Sale”
It’s true there are a lot of elk that use the Durfees at different times of year—2,000, according to the Montana Wildlife Federation—and in a warming world, the refuge of the mountain is a cool, safe haven for them. But to hunt bulls in the Durfees, one needs to draw a bull tag, against long odds. Spikes and cows, however, are legal with a general license, which is what I had. My daughters and I consider elk the first and most important food group, and so a cow or spike was just fine with me. More than fine.
The Durfee Hills are public land—held by the Bureau of Land Management, and owned by every American—but the only way to get there is by plane or helicopter, because access is cut off by a stranglehold of ranches, mostly thanks to the infamous Wilks brothers, Farris and Dan—Texas billionaires who made a fortune in fracking and bought all the private ranchland surrounding the Durfee Hills, then tried to buy the public land of the Durfees themselves. The public—particularly BHA—said no.
“It’s the best elk hunting in the world,” Sullivan said. “I’m sorry that the billionaires can’t have it. It’s ours. It’s not for sale.”
As if in a dream, the glass bubble of the helicopter drifts us across snow prairie. In all directions, we can see distant mountain ranges—the Big Snowies, the Little Snowies, the Castles, the Bearpaws, the Crazies, even the mighty Absarokas—and in the middle, our destination, the Durfee Hills, center of the prairie, and center of the battle of elk hunters who seek to hold on to our public land.
The chopper settles…