A Wilderness Bill-y Hunt and ‘The Bob’ 

A Wilderness Bill-y Hunt and ‘The Bob’ 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Whitefish, Mont., is what it is because of its connection to wild places and wildlife. Pat Van Eimeren has lived there nearly 30 years, working as a fisheries biologist for the Flathead National Forest until he retired last year. A lifelong hunter, he began applying for a difficult-to-get tag to hunt a mountain goat the year he moved to the Flathead Valley to work for the Forest Service in 1992. He finally drew this tag this year, the year after he retired. THe FORLOH team took the opportunity to outfit Pat, a Whitefish neighbor, with gear for the hunt of a lifetime. Here is his story: 

The Bob Marshall Wilderness (affectionately known as “The Bob”) conjures up images of a vast, rugged sweeping landscape, the third largest in the lower United States. It is still home to all the wildlife that Lewis and Clark encountered on their way West in 1805: moose, whitetail and mule deer, elk, black and grizzly bear, bighorn sheep, wolves, mountain lion, wolverine, lynx and mountain goats. Other species have disappeared from ecosystems throughout the US but not in The Bob. 

The wilderness is named after Bob Marshall, a visionary, outspoken Forest Service employee who championed the concept and conservation of wild places in the early 1930s. Bob was known for his 40-60 mile day treks through this unspoiled landscape. Lungs like a mountain goat, he scaled many of its highest peaks. However, Bob Marshall did not live to be an old goat, passing away at 38. The Forest Service administratively set aside the Bob Marshall Wilderness in 1940, a year after his death, and the area was federally designated with the signage of the Wilderness Act in 1964. 

The Wilderness Act didn’t happen overnight. The movement started decades earlier, at times similar to the glacial speed that carved this landscape. Many men with ties to Montana played key roles in forming the Wilderness Society in 1935 and shaped the movement to insure its passage in 1964. Chief among these men was Bob Marshall, who came to Missoula, Mont., at the age of 24 to study the role of forest regeneration after wildfire. Bob had a chance to connect with another Forest Service wilderness stalwart, Aldo Leopold, who was responsible for setting aside the Gila Wilderness in 1924 in New Mexico. These two men and other giants of the conservation movement, Howard Zahniser (chief architect of the Wilderness Bill), Olaus Murie, Stewart Brandborg, and Robert Cooney, worked tirelessly to lobby and seek support for passage of the Wilderness Act. 

I’m a biologist and what fascinates me is that many of these men had formal training in wildlife management and put the same relentless pursuit and patience for wildlife study later into pushing society to see the value in preserving these wild places not only for wildlife but for mankind. 

Bob Marshall, Stewart Brandborg and Robert Cooney were foremost on my mind as I hiked into the Bob Marshall Wilderness with a coveted mountain goat tag in my pocket. Stewart Brandborg had conducted ground-breaking studies of mountain goats in Idaho and Montana in the late 1940s. Cooney was the first biologist hired by Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks in 1940. In 1941, Cooney spent three months in the Bob Marshall surveying wildlife, mainly grizzly bear but elk and mountain goats as well. During the course of his travels that summer Cooney documented 159 mountain goats. I was going to hunt descendants of goats that he had counted eight decades earlier and in a landscape that Cooney and others had worked so hard to protect.

Zahniser, Brandborg, and Cooney had a friend in Senator Lee Metcalf. Senator Metcalf from Montana served in the US Senate from 1961 to 1978 and fought an eight-year battle, previously as a US representative and then as a senator, for the passage of the Wilderness Act that Lyndon B. Johnson signed on September 3, 1964. The Wilderness Act set aside five original areas in Montana: Bob Marshall, Anaconda Pintler, Gates of the Mountains, Cabinet Mountains, and the Selway Bitterroot. The Lee Metcalf Wilderness would be designated in 1983, named after the Montanan that moved mountains to get the act passed. It took 31 years for another wilderness to be designated by the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act in 2014. Future stalwarts and supporters are needed as evidenced by the large gap between designations. I will get to that later.

I can’t say that I have walked in Bob Marshall’s footsteps, but I have traversed many miles of The Bob during my three-decade career with the Forest Service on the Flathead National Forest. I applied for a mountain goat tag the first year I worked in The Bob and now, by some twist of fate, I drew a tag the year I retired. It was a heck of a retirement present! I had the only goat tag in a 300-square-mile unit in the wilderness. I had wide open country, no roads, no developments, wildlife and landscapes untrammeled by man. I owed it all to these giants of the wilderness movement. It meant I could slow my hunt down, breath in the cold mountain air, glass and not worry about other hunters getting to my quarry first. Outside of wilderness, there is a rush, a competition, an ‘I have to get there fast’ approach before someone else does. I needed not worry about that here; I could drink in all that the wilderness had to offer. I had a goat tag in an area with these named peaks: Marshall, Goat, Kid, Oreamus, Bulletnose, and Nannie Basin. I had time to hunt, I had just retired!

Retirement afforded me the time also to train for the hunt and scout the vast country. I spent five trips (12-15 days) scouting in July and August. I saw goats on only one of my trips. I had my work cut out for me just like the conservation giants did by working hard to find success. As a fish biologist, I had worked hard throughout my career to conserve native westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout in The Bob. I knew the area well and, given the vastness of the area, I knew I needed to enlist help. I contacted FORLOH, whose Exposed Camo I felt would match the lichen covered rocks in the high country remarkably well, and my neighbor set me up with a Proof Research rifle weighing in under 6 pounds. This gear is locally headquartered in Whitefish and Kalispell, respectively. My hunt was going to be Montana-made, much like the Wilderness Act. 

I needed pack support to access the wild country, which was provided by my son’s father-in-law Kirk on the way in, and my brother-in-law Russ on the way out. I carved out 10 days to hunt in early October in the high cirques carved by glaciers. I would camp and hike the hanging basins searching for “a beast, the color of winter.” Ken Wensel and I set up camp. As it turned out, I didn’t need 10 days. We spotted two billies about a mile apart the first night, and went to bed hoping to find them in the morning. After a sleepless, star-filled night sky, I had to eat breakfast not from camp but from my glassing spot, eager to find the Billy. After an hour of glassing and no Billy in sight, we decided to climb up where we saw him the night before. Two hours later we were in the area and miraculously, he showed up sky lined 800 feet above us.

I was patient, gathered my wits to figure out what it would take to find my success. In 1964, it took preparation, cool heads, grit, perseverance, knowledge and a look forwardness to find success and secure the future of wilderness.  There were obstacles to overcome, there was scaling of mountains, and there were winds of change. I put these attributes into action as the Billy walked behind a knob at 400 yards. I was doubtful that he would come back in front of the knob so I worked behind the scenes and maneuvered to cut him off. I thought of all the behind-the-scenes work and the preparation that conservation heroes pushed for and used that momentum to drive me up the mountain. I reached the top, lungs burning, muscles aching, knowing the exhilaration these heroes must have felt that day in September 1964.

The goat wasn’t in sight. I glassed to my left thinking he would have passed by already and I couldn’t see him. I hoped then that he was to my right and still out of sight behind the knob. I took about 15 steps and saw his horns, fortunately he had not seen me. I dropped down, readied my pack and he popped out at 50 yards. My senses came alive, I could smell his musk, his glands at the base of his horns bulged and his long white coat fluffed in the wind. I feared that at this range, if he saw me that I might become the hunted.  Time stood still; glacial.  My Forloh Exposed Camo did not leave me exposed even at that distance and allowed me to blend into the lichen covered rocks, slow down the moment and make the shot. Wow, what a Billy, what a landscape. I found success at this time and in this amazing place because of the conservation giants before me. 

My father-in-law shot a goat 10 miles east of my location in 1962. He was a Forest Service Ranger in the Bob prior to the 1964 Wilderness Act. I would like to see my son have the opportunity to shoot a goat in this special place in the future. The future of hunting is ours to shape and mold. We will need a new generation of conservation heroes; we can’t wait another 31 years between designations. “Wilderness is melting away,” Bob Marshall penned, “like some last snowbank on some south-facing mountainside during a hot afternoon in June.”  Today’s generation is linked to social media, cutting-edge technology and innovation and perhaps can be reached, in part, through new companies like FORLOH that have the ability to excite new hunters and anglers with technologies previously unused in the clothing industry.