Two Harbors, Minn. — The elk that Jim Latvala, a Lake Superior charter fishing captain from Two Harbors, killed in Montana was seized after he failed to tag the animal immediately, a sequence of events that was captured by a reality TV show based in Minneapolis.
It’s set off controversy in the Big Sky State.
The October incident has moved Latvala and his brother, Warren Latvala, a Montana resident, to undertake an aggressive letter-writing campaign to Montana newspapers chastising Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks for confiscating the kill because Jim Latvala had no intention of breaking the law. He said the behavior of wardens was changed by the presence of TV cameras.
Charges were dismissed by a Park County (Mont.) justice of the peace after acting county attorney William Nels Swandal moved for dismissal, stating that while the warden had probable cause for writing the ticket, the rules in Minnesota, where Latvala resides, are different regarding when a big-game animal must be tagged.
Latvala said a letter from Swandal stated that he tagged the animal before the warden approached and there was no intent to evade or violate the law.
The head of the bull elk was returned to Latvala, but the meat, he was told, already had been given to a food bank, which, he said, added insult to the injury of his ruined hunt.
“I didn’t spend $2,000 on this trip for a trophy,” he said, adding the meat would have lasted him two years and was one of the main reasons, aside from spending time with his brother, for the trip.
But Jim Kropp, Montana FWP’s chief of law enforcement, defended both the warden, Drew Scott, and the reality TV show, “Wardens,” which airs on the cable network Outdoor Channel.
“You tag it when you kill it, not when you see a game warden coming,” he said. “That’s probably a cheap shot on my part, but that’s the warden’s view of what happened here.”
Kropp said what happens, sometimes, when animals, even trophy bull elk, are not tagged immediately, is that the animal is never tagged, and then the tag can be used on another animal.
Latvala, however, stressed that he had tagged the animal at least 15 minutes before he was approached by the warden, and had no idea the warden was there when he attached the tag.
The incident occurred Oct. 25, the opening day of the elk season, when elk in this mountainous area are bunched up down in the valley and are susceptible to a barrage of gunfire once legal shooting hours start, which, Kropp said, makes for a challenging law enforcement situation.
Latvala, who said he wasn’t aware he was being filmed after he fired a deadly shot at a 6-by-6 elk near Clyde Park, Mont., near his brother’s home, said it was the heat of the moment that prevented him from tagging the animal sooner. Wording on the tag states it must be attached immediately.
“From the time I shot the bull, 10 minutes went by before I even started walking towards it,” he said. “The TV cameraman and the warden, they were watching with binocs and this long-distance lens.
“They saw my brother and I approach the elk. They saw a brief conversation. He was saying he can get the tractor over there on the far side of the water he was laying in. When I first approached the bull, I said a prayer. It’s a Native American thing I always do. …
“They saw me approach the bull. They saw (Latvala and his brother) have a brief conversation. They saw us take some pictures. They saw me pull the tag out of my pocket. My brother asked if I had tape to attach it to the antlers. I said no. He was going to throw me the tape (across the river bottom). I put the tag under the flap of my backpack so it wouldn’t blow around. I turned around and caught the tape.”
Latvala said he walked to the bull, which was partially in the water. He said he sat down next to the animal and attached the tag to the animal and then started to field-dress it. He said he didn’t move the animal before tagging it.
“I wasn’t keeping track of time,” Latvala said, noting that his brother left to get the tractor, and afterwards he noticed two men not wearing blaze orange walking toward him.
Latvala said the warden asked him to bring him the tag.
“He said, ‘There is a strong possibility that you are going to lose this animal today,’ ” Latvala said, noting that the warden asked how much time he thought it took him to tag the animal, for which Latvala surmised 15 minutes. “He said, “It took you 21 minutes to tag the animal and the law says you have to do it immediately.’ ”
Latvala said when he asked what, exactly, “immediately” meant, the warden responded, “Look it up in the dictionary.”
Kropp said that, in the warden’s opinion, Latvala had no intention of tagging the elk because he put it away without notching it after having a discussion with his brother.
“There’s a discussion, the license gets folded up and stuck back into his backpack,” Kropp said. “For whatever reason, there’s a decision not to tag that elk at that moment. … The warden’s decision was based on what he saw. He didn’t think the sportsman was going to tag the animal. And that’s what it is. Everything else was not part of his decision.”
Latvala vehemently denied the accusation.
Several hours later, while Latvala was dressing the elk at his brother’s residence, the warden confiscated the elk, which was captured by the cameraman, who filmed from the road.
Latvala said he suspects the meat was wasted, because the warden folded the animal, which wasn’t fully dressed, on top of itself, and then headed off, on a sunny, mild day, in a direction other than the closest town where it could be processed.
Kropp said the officer headed in that direction because of another call in the area but shortly headed to a processor, who told Kropp last week that little of the animal went to waste, though he declined to give the name of the processor.
Kropp said the Latvalas’ letter-writing attack is bad for hunting.
“The warden himself has taken a lot of heat over this,” Kropp said. “It was a decision he made with his supervisor. It had nothing to do with the camera. … But airing dirty laundry and taking it international on the Web only serves to further tarnish the image of hunting. Most people in Montana support hunting as a legitimate management tool as long as the rules are followed. … When you step outside of that arena, the non-hunting public decides the future. It’s important that we work through these things in a collaborative manner, rather than destroying the entire process.”
Latvala, who lived in Montana in his youth, and his brother hope to change Montana’s laws, prohibiting reality TV cameras from filming in the field. They have written to both editors and officials in the state, and also seek better language be printed on the tags so it is clearer to hunters that the tags must be placed even before pictures may be taken.
“If our efforts work out, then I would consider (hunting in Montana again),” he said, suggesting that the actions of the warden and his supervisor be investigated. “I am soured on this.”
Kropp defended the TV show.
“It’s reality TV, but it’s not,” Kropp said. “We don’t set anything up or have a situation where anything is staged. It’s more like a day in the life of a game warden than a reality show. So what you see is what you get.”
Minneapolis-based Mitch Petrie, executive producer of “Wardens,” said he wasn’t sure if the footage would air before later making up his mind.
“Having thought that through, out of respect for Latvala, we have no intention to air the footage,” Petrie said.