Since 1901 when W.F. Scott was appointed as the state's first game warden, the guardians of Montana's fish and wildlife have spent at least part of their time on horseback. Today, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks still keeps a handful of horses and a few mules in five of its seven regions to do the work that can't be done any other way.
"Horses are the best way for wardens and some biologists to get into non-motorized areas where hunters and anglers venture," said Jeff Darrah, FWP Region 2 warden captain in Missoula.
There is nothing fancy about the horses or the riding involved.
"We look for mature, stocky, experienced quarter horses with strong front ends since we do a lot of climbing," said Jeff Scott, FWP Region 5 warden in Columbus who has spent his 27-year career working with horses. "Some wardens use their own stock if they have it, others use the state-owned horses—but every animal needs to be a good traveler."
Scott said the horses are used spring to fall and add chores to their handlers' work schedule including daily feeding and grooming; spring vaccinations including West Nile and blood tests for Coggins disease; and shoeing the horses every six to eight weeks.
Horses are essential for monitoring compliance with the fish and game regulations and for investigating wildlife crimes in the backcountry.
Spring and summer wardens on horseback check to be sure anglers at mountain lakes comply with the state fish regulations, investigate wildlife crimes and they may help biologists with fish transport when needed.
Fall work begins with the Sept. 15 early backcountry elk season. For example, wardens will pack into the Slough Creek, Buffalo Fork of Slough Creek and Hell Roaring Creek drainages near Gardiner, set up camp and monitor hunting activity in the area.
The typical 12-hour day begins at 4:30 a.m. and may entail 15-20 miles on horseback.
"We usually try to make a big loop and often come out after dark," Scott said of the backcountry elk season. He said even without cell phones the word spreads quickly among hunters that game wardens are in the area, and most are happy to see them.
Horses have also been essential in reintroducing Arctic grayling in the Sun River drainage. This project involved fisheries biologists and other FWP personnel, including wardens, who helped pack grayling into the drainage over the course of several seasons beginning in the late 1990’s and into 2001.
Darrah said you can tell how much experience a backcountry horseman has by the number of "wrecks" and wild horse stories they have to share, but Scott's most memorable ride wasn't a wreck at all.
He describes riding in Frenchy's Meadow in Slough Creek one pretty fall day, really covering ground on a good horse and just feeling good about life.
"I’m not a singer, but I found myself singing out loud all the way across the meadow," Scott said. "I have some awful good memories working off horseback with my dog Blue for company."
Jeff Scott, FWP Warden in Columbus, pictured with Handy, a state-owned horse, at the Buffalo Fork of Slough Creek.