For as long as the state of Montana has existed, and long before, its human inhabitants have hunted its wildlife.
For thousands of years, Native Americans relied on hunting with primitive tools for subsistence. With European colonization, hunting’s evolution from sustenance to market and trophy hunting of the 1800s marked major changes for the landscape and game herds. Animals such as bison were decimated and predators poised for eradication.
As early as 1865, the territorial legislature passed the first law protecting wildlife in Montana. The first closed hunting seasons followed in 1872, and conservation continued with Theodore Roosevelt and the formation of organizations such as the Boone and Crockett Club. Only a decade into statehood in 1898, Montana’s Fish and Game Board hired its first state game warden, R.A. Wagner, to enforce the new game laws.
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The Montana Historical Society’s collection includes many of these images of early hunting where hunting practices looked far different than today.
The idea of hunting in Yellowstone National Park is foreign to our modern sensibilities, but in 1875 when this photo was taken it was still legal. The park was established in 1872, but hunting wasn't banned until 1883 when park managers recognized the loss of wildlife. The five elk pictured are in velvet, the period of antler regrowth that happens annually in the summer months.
Internationally known naturalist, author, and conservationist William T. Hornaday was sent west to Montana in 1886 by the Smithsonian to collect specimens from the last free-roaming herd of bison. What he saw led him to write “The Extermination of the American Bison,” where he wrote about the iconic animal's near extinction. In 1908, six years after this photo was taken, Hornaday helped establish the national Bison Range outside Moiese.
L.A. Huffman photographed some of the last remnants of the Wild West and would later establish a photo business from 1879 to 1931 in what became Miles City. Arriving at the age of 25, Huffman captured Montana before the railroad arrived and the rise of the large cattle industry. In this photograph he poses with a grizzly bear on the prairie. Grizzlies, a native to prairie ecosystems, used to rule Montana’s open landscape until white settlers eradicated many and drove the rest into the mountainous environs where they dwell today.
The Hilger family homesteaded along the banks of the Missouri River in 1867 near the Gates of the Mountains and quickly became a prominent family in the Helena area. It is interesting to see that even at a time when hunting for sustenance and commercial purposes was the norm, some hunters still prized the trophy of the heads. Of note are the diversity of species displayed with the hunters: a mountain goat, bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, whitetail, bison skull and the hides of wolves, coyotes and a black bear.
Hunters today will see the size of this bull elk’s antler and consider it a trophy of a lifetime. But, there seems to be more of a story here that one can’t help but speculate. Were the hunters skinning the elk and shot the two bears as they came upon the kill site? Or, did the hunters stumble upon the bears feeding on the elk? Or maybe the story is something altogether different?
After the Northern Pacific railroad made its way out west, hunting excursions were advertised to easterners who came west to pursue quarry and adventure. “Throughout much of Euro-American history, it indeed has not been 'convenient' for women to take up activities so deeply male identified as hunting.” Mary Zeiss Stange writes in her essay "Women and Hunting in the West," “Frontier women were establishing themselves as hunters throughout the American West, and the next several decades would see growing numbers of middle and upper-class easterners drawn westward to share some of the adventure of their pioneering sisters."
For much of the 19th century, market hunting was a big industry across the West and led to the decimation of bison populations from millions to only a few hundred. For these market hunters it appears mule deer and bighorn sheep were their pursuit. Market hunting for big game animals came to end with the passage of the Lacey Act in 1900.
As herds of cattle and sheep expanded in Montana and across the West, predators such as coyotes came in the crosshairs. Bounties, shooting and poisoning led to hundreds of thousands of coyotes being killed in the name of protecting livestock.
Unlike modern times when hunters take to the hills clad in synthetic camouflage with high-powered scoped rifles, 19th century hunters used lever-action rifles with iron sights and wore everyday clothes.
Professional hunters called "wolfers" killed the canines for the market value of their fur. They were commonly hired by stock growers as means of protecting their livestock. In 1915 the U.S. government hired its first wolf hunters and they killed more than 24,000 wolves before they were disbanded in 1942.
Although we can’t say for certain, one might assume the use of these tripods was meant for curing game birds. Hanging game birds until they started to decompose was a common practice back then for achieving a richer flavor from the game meat.
These three men are wearing waders, a type of waterproof pants, hunters still use today when hunting waterfowl or fishing rivers. Also like today, when many hunting seasons overlap in the fall, these hunters have a mixed bag of waterfowl and big game.
Hunting and technology go hand-in-hand. The introduction of the automobile made reaching the backcountry even more efficient and in turn made the pursuit of game more efficient. As history has shown, the advent of technologies like centerfire rifles, scopes, automobiles and more made hunting easier. Who knows what sort of hunting technologies will be available 100 years from today?
Thom Bridge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org