Jim Latvala, a 65-year-old fishing guide from Two Harbors, Minn., shot a six-point bull elk on the opening day of the Montana season. He was hunting with his older brother, 71-year-old Montana resident Warren Latvala, a retired land surveyor who has owned property in the area for 37 years. They were hunting on a neighbor’s land next to Highway 89 south of Clyde Park, close to the Shields River. About 200 yards away, Jim picked the bull out of a herd of roughly 60 elk that had just run across the highway at first light into the field they had staked out.
“It was the first time we actually got to hunt together, and me taking this bull, we were elated, euphoric, in la-la land,” Jim Latvala said in a telephone interview.
That feeling soon soured when a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks warden, followed by a TV show videographer, approached Latvala as he was gutting the bull and asked to see his nonresident elk tag. Latvala said it was then that the warden told him he had a good chance of losing the bull because he hadn’t tagged it immediately, as Montana regulations require.
Latvala said in Minnesota it’s not necessary to tag game until it’s going to be moved. He was also busy figuring out with his brother how to haul the elk out of the swamp where it had died and had to wade across the water to get to the bull.
“If you read the statute it says you must immediately validate the tag,” said Joe Knarr, FWP’s Region 3 warden sergeant. “If it doesn’t say ‘immediately,’ then you may define immediately different than me.”
FWP’s concern is that if a tag isn’t notched right away, a hunter may pocket it to use it again on a different animal.
Knarr said he was in contact with the warden, Drew Scott, as the situation played out, so he was aware of the circumstances “as soon as the elk hit the ground.” Knarr called the time between when Jim Latvala shot and when the elk was tagged “substantial” — roughly 20 to 25 minutes.
“Given the answers (Latvala) gave and the circumstances, this was the best course of action under these circumstances,” Knarr said. “There were violations. They did occur. The officer was within his rights to do what he did, but the county attorney wanted to give the head back to the fella but not the meat based on the fact that a violation did occur.”
Warren Latvala, who had amiable contact with Scott before the citation, said the presence of the cameraman, who was filming Scott for the TV show "Wardens," pressured Scott to write the $135 citation and to confiscate the game. Warren Latvala said he’d like to see cameramen banned from riding with game wardens.
“Damn it, the people who work (for FWP) should be out looking for poachers, not someone who took 21 minutes to fill out their tag,” Warren Latvala said.
Jim and Warren Latvala feel bolstered in their argument by the fact that the acting Park County attorney, Nels Swandal, dismissed the charge of failure to properly tag a game animal. In a letter addressed to Jim Latvala, Swandal listed as reasons for dropping the charge that Latvala had “no intent to evade or violate the law,” came from a state where the rules are different and had tagged the elk before the game warden approached.
The county attorney then phoned Latvala and told him he could pick up the elk head but that the meat had been given to a food bank.
“I don’t trophy hunt,” Latvala said. “I would never spend $2,000 to come back with the head of a bull.”
Latvala, a former Marine who served in his local Rotary Club and American Legion, has hunted for most of his life.
“I take hunting pretty seriously,” he said. “I’m not in it for the blood,” adding that the meat would have lasted him for two years.
“To have this fall apart makes me nauseated.”
Knarr said Scott was justified in issuing the citation because there was a violation. Once that citation was issued, it was up to the county attorney to decide how to prosecute, or not.
“That’s completely up to him,” Knarr said.
In a letter from Swandal to Scott, the acting county attorney wrote that Latvala had come to the office to register a complaint about being ticketed. After reviewing Latvala’s written statement and talking to Scott, Swandal wrote that “it appears few facts are in dispute. You clearly had Probable Cause to issue the citation and it is also clear that the meat had to be processed quickly.” Yet Swandal decided to drop the charges. Knarr said it was “pretty unusual” for the county attorney to return the elk head to Latvala given the circumstances.
Warren Latvala was so upset by the citation and his brother’s loss of the elk meat that he’s contacted his state representative seeking some type of action. Jim Latvala has also written letters to FWP director Jeff Hagener and the local Fish and Wildlife commissioner, Dan Vermillion, outlining his disappointment with what happened and seeking monetary compensation for his loss — about $2,000.
“I’m not a bad guy,” Jim Latvala said. “And I’m suffering because of this. I want justice.”
By Wednesday, Vermillion said he hadn’t received the letter but, like Knarr, praised Scott as a good warden.
The Latvalas also think that Scott’s decision to issue the citation was swayed by the fact that a cameraman was riding and filming with Scott that day.
That's an accusation that Mitch Petrie, president and executive producer of "Wardens" said is understandable but wrong.
"Our videographers are trained to be a fly on the wall and stay out of the way," Petrie said. "There's no pressure to produce anything."
Like his younger brother, Warren Latvala said the entire situation has left him bitter and sad.
“I’ve hunted since I was 8 years old and my dad bought me a .410 shotgun,” Warren said. “And I’ve hunted continuously ever since then. Every year I’ve bought a deer and elk tag.”
Yet he didn’t hunt again this season, saying that now he’s always looking over his shoulder.
“It took the joy out of it for me,” he said. “I’ve got two unfilled tags, and I’ll never buy another one.”