Dick Cooper’s grandfather homesteaded atop Blue Creek in 1896, and the ranch has stayed in family hands even as the largest city in Montana — Billings — slowly expanded next door.
Despite the ranch’s location only 7 miles south of the Yellowstone River, the Coopers have always allowed public hunting on the condition that folks first received written permission.
“Dick encourages people to bring their kids out,” said his wife, Katie Cooper, recounting how one proud 10-year-old stopped at the house after hunting this fall to thank them for the three-point buck that he shot on their land.
But recently someone gunned down their 12-year-old quarter horse, making the Coopers reconsider their hunter hospitality.
“We never had a problem until this year,” she said.
The broodmare — descended from racing stock — was shot behind the ear, behind the shoulder, in the chest and in the leg. The animal was discovered dead near the Coopers’ branding corral, about two miles from the family home.
The investigation of such shootings is turned over to the Montana Department of Livestock’s district brand inspectors. A department detective, who asked not to be identified, said he couldn’t comment on an ongoing investigation.
The Coopers will be reimbursed about $600, Katie said, but the mare was worth close to $8,000. The money comes from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks' livestock loss reimbursement program. According to FWP's Jason Kool, the program is a good-neighbor effort to reimburse livestock losses to those landowners who allow public hunting.
Kool said the department gets on average about 10 to 15 claims a year and approves about a half to a third of those requests. The cases range from accidental shootings to illegal night hunting and thrill killing like the Coopers' mare.
Over the years, Katie said the family has granted permission to about 20 to 30 hunters a year, including upland bird hunters. This year the number of hunters is down because the state is not allowing mule deer does to be shot.
“Dick’s always been good about letting hunters hunt,” Katie said.
But since the shooting of the broodmare, he’s been reconsidering his history of hospitality.
Anyone with information on the shooting can contact district Department of Livestock investigator Shawn Hando at 406-220-1081.