Earlier this winter, as the first wave of deep snow and arctic cold slammed northeastern Montana, Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ game warden Todd Anderson was dispatched early one morning by the Valley County (Montana) Sheriff’s office.
“I was told that the BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad) engineer had just called to say his train had hit a herd of antelope west of Vandalia, and there were wounded animals to dispatch,” Anderson told me this week. “I drove out there, and as I got close, I was flagged down by a railroad worker.”
The incident had happened a mile from the nearest crossing, so the BNSF employee offered to drive Anderson to the scene in his converted pickup, outfitted with a locomotive’s running gear to travel the tracks.
The collision was reported last week in the Great Falls Tribune, but the article doesn’t come close to describing the carnage that awaited Anderson. Here is his story in his words, recounting one of the darkest days of any warden’s career:
“I’m glad I got a ride to the scene. I was intending to walk, but I had no idea what the conditions were like. The railroad tracks were the only place clear of snow, and in some places, drifts up to 8 feet deep made the tracks like a tunnel. As we got close, it was clear that this wasn’t an ordinary call.
“There were parts of antelope everywhere. The impact just blew those animals apart. Severed legs everywhere and guts all along the tracks. There were antelope carcasses hanging from the upper limbs of cottonwood trees, where the impact had flung them.
“It was clear that the train had hit two distinct herds. In the first herd, 20 or 30 antelope had been cut to pieces by the train, but there were another 20 or so antelope that were crippled or had their guts hanging out–and weren’t going to make it.
“As I looked down the tracks I got the full scope of the deal. As far as I could see there was carnage. The antelope that had been hit by the bed of the train (the sides of the cars) had been blown off the tracks, but the antelope that had been standing right in between the tracks were just cut in half.
“The collision happened around 5:30 in the morning. By the time I got there it was maybe 9 a.m., and the bald eagles were already there. There were maybe 20 eagles already working on the carcasses.
“You know, the animals that had been hit were bad enough, but you could see where other antelope had run. That’s what antelope do, they run from danger, but the snow was so deep on the shoulders of the tracks that they jumped out of danger only to suffocate standing up in the deep snow.
“I saw a fawn still alive in a snow drift off the side of the tracks, and I jumped in to try to pull it out. I’m 6-foot-3 and I fell in up to my armpits. I literally couldn’t move, and as I was trying to figure a way out of the snow I looked around and saw antelope that were trapped just like me in the drifts. Only I could only see the tips of their ears. They were dead, stuck standing in the snow. We ended up counting something like 270 dead antelope but I know when the snow melts, they’re going to find a lot more than that.
“I had to start shooting the wounded animals, putting them down. I just shot and shot, but it seemed like there were always more antelope that needed to be put down. The crippled antelope were bad enough, but there were plenty of antelope that weren’t physically injured, but they were so starved down that they didn’t even care that I was in their face.
“I went out there with my LE rifle, and I actually ran out of bullets. I had to go back to my pickup to get more magazines. It was one of the worst experiences of my career. I went through four 20-round magazines — that’s 80 rounds. I’m not the greatest rifle shot, but these were point blank shots, so I figured I killed between 50 and 70 antelope.
“The thing is, you have to look these animals in the eye. They’re looking up at you and you have to take them out from 20 feet away, just pounding them. If you’re a hunter and you love wildlife, it’s pretty much a nightmare.
“Our agency is in the business of managing wildlife and providing recreational opportunity. But here I was, killing the very animals I am sworn to protect.
“I love to hunt antelope with my bow, to figure out the stalk and get close. But I have to tell you, after this experience on the tracks, I don’t care if I ever kill another antelope. I’ll hunt them, but I’m done killing them.”