The hide from the wolf Carl Lewis shot stretches 7 feet, 9 inches long, the back and ruff as black as a Montana midnight, easing along the legs and flanks to a color that Lewis likens to that of a blue roan horse. Lewis shot the big radio-collared alpha male on his ranch, high on the east side of the Big Hole Valley, last fall. "I really wanted to get a wolf this year," he says, "because we have to live around them, and I wanted to see a few less around our place." Lewis and his family saw wolves 22 different times on their ranch during the past summer, so he knew where to start hunting. "I went out that morning on a fresh snow, and saw no tracks at all. Got up to the top of the ridge, though, and there he was." Lewis shot the wolf from 400 yards with his .338, the rifle he normally uses for elk hunting. Three days later, his son Tanner got a wolf of his own.
Montana's first-ever wolf season was viewed with horror by many environmental groups, and by many people who have celebrated the charismatic predator's return to the Northern Rockies. The hunt was simply too much, too soon, they said; it would kill off the alpha males and females that are the primary breeders and break the slowly building matrix of genetic diversity that is key to the long-term health of the returning populations. They predicted that leaderless wolf packs would go after even more livestock, leading to more wolf-killing by the federal Wildlife Services. The wolves' positive effects on the ecosystem -- keeping coyote numbers in check, scattering elk that were overgrazing their winter ranges -- could be reversed.
But even if those fears proved true, the sheer success of wolf reintroduction made a hunt inevitable, sooner or later. With more than 1,645 wolves in the region and at least 95 breeding pairs, the program had exceeded its original goals of at least 300 wolves, with 30 breeding pairs, every year for over seven years. The population was expanding faster than anyone, even the region's leading predator biologists, could have predicted. Many Montana big-game hunters thought that a tipping point had been reached. "We always knew there would have to be management of wolves," says Carolyn Sime, statewide wolf coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "Or people would just start killing them. The question was whether that management would be through the tried-and-true method of hunting, or through government control only, paying the shooters with the helicopters. We wanted the same model that has given us some of our biggest conservation successes with other wildlife."
As Montana's wolf hunt closed in November, the human element -- the pro-wolf, anti-wolf anger that has been so much a part of wolf restoration in the West –– shifted, almost imperceptibly. True, the hunt's critics remained outraged, while those who want wolves eliminated altogether were dismayed that so many were still alive. True, most successful wolf hunters shot their quarry while deer and elk hunting, and most of them, according to interviews, viewed the shooting more as predator control than as a true "hunting" experience. But the stage has been set for a change.
Foremost, the federal government is no longer making the rules. The state of Montana is. But more importantly, among the wolf hunters is a small but growing constituency that sees the animals neither as the sacred burning heart of nature, something to be worshipped from afar, nor as mangy and murderous vermin that deserve extermination. Instead, they view wolves as wild game animals, a quarry worthy of respect –– maybe, someday, even protection. Judging from the past, it is this constituency that will ensure the survival of the gray wolf into the 21st century. "When it comes to big animals with big teeth that eat big things, you have a lot of things to balance out," says Sime. "If you can't develop a broad-based constituency of support for the species on the landscape where the people live with them, then the long-term viability of that species is not good."
Montana's wolf season opened in the backcountry on Sept. 15, and in the rest of the state's current wolf country -- roughly from the Canadian border west of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, south to the Idaho line and east to Yellowstone National Park -- on Oct. 25. According to state game officials, 15,603 hunters bought wolf tags, including 89 non-residents who paid $350 for the privilege (a resident tag was only $19), bringing in a total of over $325,000.
The first day of the hunt was hard on wolves that had never been hunted before: Ten were killed. An average of 20 wolves per week were killed after that. The wolf season closed on Nov. 16, a few days ahead of schedule; hunters had killed 72 wolves out of the 75-wolf quota set by state wildlife biologists, and the quota was about to be surpassed.