When hunters stop at the game check station on U.S. 93 near Olney during next year’s season, one very notable face won’t be there.
After 31 seasons of volunteering at the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks check station, 76-year-old Leonard Howke has decided to take a step back.
Howke’s passion for his work hasn’t dimmed, but concerns about his eyesight while driving after dark ultimately made up his mind.
Rachel VandeVoort, 40, is one of many people who are truly going to miss seeing Howke at the Olney check station.
“When I heard, I thought ‘What’s the check station gonna be like without Leonard?’” she said.
VandeVoort is a Flathead Valley native who grew up hunting with her dad, Rick Schmidt. She is the director of the Montana Office of Outdoor Recreation. She also teaches hunter education.
Howke has checked every deer she has ever bagged, including her first deer, a spike she killed in 1990. He also checked her most recent buck, a 4x4 she bagged on the second to last weekend of the season. Howke also checked the first buck her 11-year-old son, MacLean, bagged.
“Leonard has always been there,” VandeVoort said. “He’s such a great guy.”
Howke graduated from Whitefish High School in 1959. He has worked in the timber industry, at a taxidermist shop on Central Avenue in Whitefish, and 17 years at the Columbia Falls Aluminum Co.
Spending time outdoors has been a major part of his life. Frequent camping trips with his family were a big part of his youth, as well as hunting and fishing.
In the early 1960s, Howke and some friends wanted to raft the Middle Fork of the Flathead River from up in the Schafer Meadows area in the Great Bear Wilderness, years before it had been designated as such by Congress in 1978.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service people told us we were crazy, but they said ‘go ahead,’ so we did,” Howke said.
Howke said he still floats the Middle Fork from time to time and does a little fishing.
While Howke won’t be working at the check station as much as he used to, he has no plans to stop teaching hunting education.
“I’ll stick with that,” Howke said. “I’m going to finish the school year for the Hooked on Fishing program and then want to come back to the check station to help out a little bit.”
He said he has had second thoughts about not being as involved.
“At the check station, I’ll miss the guys and the hunters stopping in to talk and with the fishing, I’ll miss the kids, but it’s been very meaningful to have been able to be so involved in helping kids learn about the outdoors and how to do it safely,” Howke said.
Howke’s history of volunteering for Fish, Wildlife and Parks also has included working on white-tailed deer studies, capturing bears in the Swan Valley, trapping and transplanting Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, and helping with bighorn sheep trapping and transplanting operations.
“Trapping sheep off Wild Horse Island was my favorite thing to do and I’ve been involved with the work that was done up in the Woods Ranch area, too,” Howke said.
He said one of the sheep trapping events was amazingly successful.
“When we dropped the nets on them, we caught 34,” Howke recalled.
Some of the work was to transfer sheep to areas in Montana where they didn’t exist or to determine if they had any diseases.
Howke was honored in 2015 with a 50-year hunter education award by Fish, Wildlife and Parks. He also received a Hall of Fame wall plaque and honorarium for his volunteer service.
He first got involved with teaching hunter safety in 1965, leading classes at the old Whitefish Central School.
He won a career achievement award from the Northwest Montana Game Wardens Association in 2003, was the 2007 recipient of the Montana Wildlife Society’s Wildlife Conservation Award and was the winner of the Flathead Audubon Society’s Conservation Achievement Award in 2010.
Reporter Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 406-758-4441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.