Perry Brown Watches Over Bears On the Ground
By Skip Schloss
Picture this scene: You are seated in the office of your new boss, who is detailing the job you've just accepted.
"Welcome to the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Let's review your responsibilities as a Fish and Game Warden." You will enforce all hunting and fishing laws, and pursue poaching or other illegal activity, using modern investigative techniques while respecting the rules of evidence and citizens' expectation of privacy. "Oh, by the way: Your territory, which you will be covering alone, includes one million acres of wilderness, ranging from the Flathead River to the Continental Divide, and from the Bob Marshall to the Great Bear Wilderness areas."
If you are Game Warden Perry Brown, one of the first thoughts that crosses your mind is, "I need an airplane." Becoming a game warden wasn't what caused Perry Brown to want to fly planes ... flying was a lifelong desire, and the job simply catalyzed his decision. So in 1997 Brown looked at his wife, Devie, and said, "If I don't learn to fly now, I never will." Brown engaged the tutelage of legendary Flathead Valley flight instructor and commercial pilot Bill Werner, and in August of that year he earned his private pilot certification. Along the way, Perry became so enthused with flying he bought a Piper Tri-Pacer. "I convinced myself I'd save money by owning a plane, rather than renting during my training. Ha!" "The Tri-Pacer helped me realize that what I really needed was a taildragger," Brown said. "I wanted to fly in and out of the backcountry landing strips, both for my work and for camping with my family and the nose gear on the Tri-Pacer couldn't endure the rough strips.
The Pacer was perfect for mountain flying and landing on short grass strips. He's had to replace a couple of cylinders and upgrade the radios and shoulder harnesses, but other than that, the plane was ready to do the job of helping Brown patrol a million acres of Montana's wilderness from the sky. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has a complicated relationship with employees who use privately owned aircraft. Each flight requires approval from a supervisor, and a flight plan must be filed. Low-level flying (under 500 ft.) requires crash helmets, shoulder harnesses, and strict compliance with all FAA standards.
A pilot must have 500 hours total airtime to carry a passenger while on the job, and the passenger must be a co-worker, not just a tourist. Reimbursement of expenses is based on a cost of fuel formula rather than hours or mileage flown. For a warden with an area to patrol as large as Perry Brown's (which means just about every warden in Montana, a state of 147,047 sq. mi. and just 85 wardens) the airplane is a critical tool for aerial surveillance. Working through the red-tape is worth the effort, particularly true in light of a recent judicial decision known as "Bullock," which limits wardens' access to any evidence that is not more or less in plain sight, such as that visible from a public road.
This law is particularly limiting in a state of 5,000-acre private ranches with "No Trespassing" signs and millions of acres of national forest land, where game violations could easily be hidden from view. But suspicious activities aren't hidden from an overflying airplane, and air surveillance often provides a warden legally acceptable information with which to obtain a search warrant. Warrant in hand, the warden can access posted land to pursue suspected violators. "A guy quartering out an elk is pretty obvious from the air," Brown said. "If he's taken that elk two weeks before the season opens, we've got him." For Brown, his airplane provides perhaps its most time-saving service in locating high-country hunting or fishing camps.
A warden can ride horseback up a rugged wilderness trail to see who's there, only to find nobody there. That could take all day. In that same day Brown can jump into the airplane and overfly hundreds of square miles, get a sense of the location and density of hunters or anglers in his area, and plan to meet them as they emerge from the mountains, to inspect their take of game or fish. In winter, the airplane provides access to areas inaccessible by road due to heavy snow. Outfitters and guides use horse and mule pack trains and travel two or three days each way to set up camp and haul out game from these remote, mountainous locations.
TIME WELL SPENT
Wardens cannot afford that expenditure of precious hours, but they can drop a little taildragger onto Spotted Bear or Schafer Meadows airstrips and carry out their surveillance and investigative work from those locations. Brown finds that his airplane levels the playing field in one particular venue of enforcement: monitoring other aircraft. It's illegal to drive, concentrate, or harass wildlife from a plane, and use of the plane for spotting, radioing game locations to hunters on the ground, has long been prohibited. Recently, new legislation has been passed that prevents a pilot from hunting on the same day of a flight.
The goal is to keep folks from spying a herd of elk from the air, then landing nearby, grabbing a rifle, hiking a short distance, and hunting one down. Obviously, the best way to counter such violations is with another airplane. Given the magnitude of Brown's task and the immense area to be patrolled, he can now walk into the boss's office and respond to his job description. "A million acres to patrol? No big deal. Got it covered, Boss."
Then, work over, Brown loads up the Pacer and flies to a high mountain lake for camping and fishing. All in a week's work for Montana game warden Perry Brown.
(This article appeared in Montana Living magazine in 2004)