Gone hunting wolves

 

By the time you read this blog, I will be on my second day of hunting gray wolves in Montana. An old friend of mine in Livingston introduced me to some ranchers in Paradise Valley to write a story of their hunt. We will be trudging through a wilderness of snow on horseback, hoping to “get lucky”, you might say. Luck, I’ve found, is at least 50 percent of hunting anyway -- for wolves, it’s probably closer to 80 percent.

That’s not to say wolf hunters this year have been unsuccessful. Looking through wildlife agency websites for Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, hunters have recorded fairly significant kill numbers. All this occurs as wolf reintroduction, “the greatest success of the Endangered Species Act”, enters a new era -- one I'm hoping to explore in my story on the topic. The survival of America’s gray wolves now rests in the hands of state wildlife agencies and sportsmen, who have supplanted environmentalists as their diligent guardians.

Some statistics to date:

Hunters in Montana have harvested 84 wolves as of Thursday afternoon, out of a population of at least 650 statewide. Different this year compared to the last is that there is no statewide wolf harvest limit. In 2011, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks set a harvest quota of 220 wolves, but even though hunters had a 46-day extension, they only killed 166 wolves by the end of the season in mid-February. Another difference: This 2012 season allows trapping in Montana for the first time since wolves were delisted. From December 15 through February 28, trappers will be able to snatch three pelts apiece.

Idaho doesn’t have a state bag limit either, and their season starts earlier and ends later. Last year, with a population estimated around 746 wolves, hunters and trappers killed a combined 349. Trappers are typically more successful than hunters, but there are fewer of them, as Jason Husseman, regional wildlife biologist for Idaho Department of Fish and Game told me.  Roughly 1,000 trappers took the state's mandatory trapper license course this year, compared with over 100,000 hunters that head out into the woods, many of them looking for wolves. So while trapping may be an easier way to kill a wolf, there just aren’t as many people doing it … so far.

Wyoming is the state environmental groups worried about the most during the height of the wolf de-listing wars, and was the last state to get approval for a wolf hunt.  Wolf advocates worried the state would kill off their population with lax regulations. Depending on how you look at it, they may have had reason to fret. The state designated wolves “predatory animals” except for within four management units, plus Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Reservation. As predatory animals, wolves can be killed, year-round, without a license. On the other hand, some say the majority of Wyoming’s wolf population is located in the management units, which all have quotas, and the rest of the state isn’t inhabited by wolves. It’s tough to gauge who’s right at this point. So far 37 wolves have been harvested in the management units; the total quota for the units is 52. Outside the units, 19 wolves have been killed to date.

If you’re hankering to kill a wolf and you live outside one of these states, I'd recommend taking your gun to Idaho. They only charge non-residents $31.75 for a wolf tag. Montana's fee is $350 (compared to $19 for locals) and Wyoming charges $180 (residents pay just $18). Either way, you’re going to have a tough time. Wolves aren’t easy to spot. I’m sure I’m finding that out by now.

Neil LaRubbio is the editorial fellow at High Country News. His Twitter handle is @VictorAntonin.

Photos provided by Wade Richardson.