Ringling, Ringling

Ringling, Ringling, slippin away, Only 40 people livin there today, Streets are dusty, The bank has been closed down. It's a dyin' little town. — Jimmy Buffett, from his song titled "Ringling, Ringling"

By David Reese, Montana Living

The bartender pushed three beers across the counter to my hunting partners and me then burrowed his arms deep into dish water. "Pretty quiet around here this year," he said, as a group of hunters moseyed in for dinner. "Looks like we'll be closing down for a while this winter."

Indeed, it was a bit quieter than usual in this tiny town of about 12 residents between Livingston and White Sulphur Springs. The town was named after John Ringling, of Ringling Bros. Circus fame, who had owned a railroad line in the area in the early 1900s. Like Jimmy Buffett's song, which he wrote in the bar one day after his car had broken down, the town of Ringling is practically slippin' away. Once a booming town of 1,500 people when it was a stop on the Milwaukee Railroad line, Ringling's population has dwindled to only a handful of people. The three-feet-thick stone building that was once the local bank's vault still stands, after the town burned down twice, and the Ringling school still holds classes in its small schoolhouse for the few outlying residents.

A local methanol plant that had briefly pumped some economic lifeblood into the town has been dismantled, and now the tumbleweeds caught in the barbed-wire fence along Highway 47 now outnumber local residents. A small post office remains. The bartender was also the owner of the Ringling Bar, the only bar and restaurant in town which doubles as the town hall, community center and general meeting place for folks from Wilsall to White Sulphur Springs. I'd spent many evenings at this place when I got too lonely back in hunting camp, and made the 13-mile journey over gumbo-covered dirt roads into town for a little conversation. To my friends and family, the name Ringling means only one thing - elk hunting - and for the last dozen or so years it's where I head come fall, to try to put some meat in the freezer.

And that I did. After three days of roaming the sage-covered hills and draws, I found my quarry: a cow elk and a mule deer buck, which I happened to kill within about three feet of where I shot a bull elk 10 years ago, almost to the day. Call it divine intervention, I guess. But the bounty that I've retrieved out of these hills for the last 12 years seems a bit harder to get at these days.

Outfitters have leased much of the private ground that we'd once had access to, and the public land takes horses to get to. As I get older, the privilege to hunt elk in Montana becomes more and more important to me. I can't imagine living in a state where I wouldn't have the chance to harvest my own big-game animals, provide food for my family and continue the heritage of humans being an active part in the food chain instead of just being consumers. (Actually I could not imagine living in any other state, period.) I read a recent article in the Montana Wildlife Federation's newsletter about the value of hunting, and how residents and nonresidents put a dollar figure on the opportunity to hunt.

The article came on the heels of an election year in which Montana voters passed a statewide Constitutional amendment to preserve our right to hunt. We Montanans put a high value on hunting, at the cost of better jobs that we could likely have in say, California. And that freezer at my house full of elk and deer meat? I guess if I had to put a price tag on it, it's worth a cool 20 grand to me.

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