Once a sustainable wolf hunt exists, more hunters, and more landowners who have to live with wolves, may begin viewing the animal as just another member of the pantheon of wild animals that need protection and restoration in a world of burgeoning humanity. Wolf reintroduction was possible in large part because generations of hunters provided license money to restore deer and elk herds and preserve habitat. That same support, even at a much lower level (predator hunting has never been as popular as hunting animals valued as meat), could help give the wolf a place on the landscape forever.
What would a successful wolf hunt look like? Perhaps something like the hunt that Mike Ross, a wildlife biologist and wolf management specialist for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, went on this fall in the backcountry of the Upper Gallatin River.
"I'm 48 years old, and I've been hunting since I was 9, and I've never had a more exciting day of hunting in my life," Ross says. Ross had a coveted permit, one of only five issued, drawn by lottery to hunt bull elk in what may be the world's best elk country. "My girlfriend, Colleen, and I saw some pretty good bulls, but I was looking for at least a 340 (Boone and Crockett). We heard wolves howling in the morning, and after lunch ... 10 wolves came out on an open ridge, flopped down in the sun, kind of belly-up. Colleen said, 'Let's go after them.' "
The two hunters crossed the river and climbed up to where they could see across to the ridge. "But they were gone," Ross says. The wolf pack was hidden in a patch of timber above them when Ross "howled them up." "The woods just opened up," Ross says, "howls everywhere, coming down on us, just wild, and I thought for a second, 'How many bullets do we have?' Then there were wolves below us, too." Ross howled again, and a big male wolf stepped from the timber above them. "He moved around us, and when he came out in the open, I shot him." The 6-year-old male wolf was black and weighed 117 pounds. Ross remains awed by the experience. "If you went out there a hundred times and tried to do something like this, you couldn't do it. It was hunting, you know, where everything comes together all of a sudden. I think those wolves were in a competitive situation with another pack, and they came in like coming into a gang fight. I'll never forget it." Ross says that he "got quite a bit of flak for shooting a wolf, people saying I exploited my job. I don't want anybody to think that. I was out hunting, I had a wolf tag, and we got into them. That's all."
On the map showing legal wolf kills from the 2009 season, there's a dense cluster of dots on the northern border of Yellowstone National Park. It marks the spot where nine wolves died at the hands of hunters on the high, windswept Buffalo Plateau, a world away from the wolf-livestock conflicts of the Madison Valley or the Bitterroot's frenetic urban interfaces. Some of the slain wolves had starred in documentaries made in the park, intimate records of their wild and dangerous lives set to soaring music. The collared alpha male of the much-chronicled Cottonwood Pack was killed, along with his collared mate, known to researchers as Number 527, and her daughter, Number 716, known to park wolf-watchers as Dark Female.
That broke the hearts of many wolf lovers -- the Los Angeles Times wrote a sort of eulogy to 527, as did Laurie Lyman, a blogger for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Lyman called for a buffer zone around the park to protect wolves that spend most of their lives inside park boundaries. Defenders of Wildlife and a host of other environmental groups had already taken their anger at the hunt to the courts, suing to get the wolf back on the endangered species list. Mike Leahy of Defenders points out that between them, hunters and federal shooters wiped out more than half of Montana's wolves in 2009. His organization would like to see 450 wolves in each of the three states before delisting occurs. "I know that asking for more wolves on the land is controversial," says Leahy. "They are a polarizing animal. But what we'd really like to see is for them to be managed as native wildlife, and we don't manage any other native wildlife down to the edge of extinction every year." The lawsuit is pending.
Biologists who study wolves on the ground seem to have a more nuanced view. State game officials shut down the hunt on the northern border of Yellowstone on Oct. 26, just as hunters exceeded by one the area's quota of 12 animals. For Doug Smith, the park's chief wolf biologist, the loss of the collared alphas and four out of 10 members of the Cottonwood Pack was a tremendous blow. "It put a big hole in our research," Smith says. He'd like to see Montana's wolf hunt "tweaked," given how quickly the quota was filled from near the park boundaries. Many other biologists agree. "You basically fill up your quota with wolves in the backcountry, and then no one can hunt the wolves that you really might want to remove, out on private lands, the ones that may be involved in livestock conflicts," Smith says. Hunters, too, complained that quotas were filled too early, preventing them from hunting wolves during the general big-game season in some places. Montana plans to hold another wolf hunt next year, and some of the suggested "tweaks" might be applied. Ken McDonald, a wildlife division administrator for the state, told a reporter, "Again, keep in mind that this was only Montana's first year of wolf hunting. It's still a learning experience for everyone involved."
No one knows how the hunt will affect the survivors' behavior and prospects. "You shoot four out of 10 in a pack, what will they do? Nobody knows," says Smith. "We know that disperser wolves (those that pioneer new territory and start new packs) usually come from large, stable packs, and dispersers are the ones that provide genetic connectivity and eventually keep the animals off the endangered species list. The Cottonwood Pack probably won't be pumping out any dispersers. They are going to stay home, regroup somehow."
But even after the loss of 527 and Dark Female, and faced with the task of capturing and re-collaring new wolves in the Cottonwood Pack, Smith still supports the way Montana wildlife managers structured the first wolf season. "I thought they did a good job with it. It was very controlled. I respectfully disagree with those people who feel that the long-term survival of the wolf is enhanced by protecting them from hunting."
For Carolyn Sime, the questions posed by wolf restoration have been as much about human values and perception as they have been about the wolves themselves. "We have hunters, who have been the greatest advocates for restoring basic stuff like deer and elk, but then it comes to wolves, and they want to get rid of them. We have the animal rights people, some of whom seem to feel that no wolves should die -- ever. Or that if a wolf had killed 527, it would have been OK, but a man with a gun? Unacceptable. I'm hoping that eventually, those who occupy the two extremes will discredit themselves." She cautions that the anti-wolf-hunting groups may unintentionally prove to be the roadblock to restoring the wolf, or even any other endangered species, to more states in the West. "If they want to set the bar so high -- more wolves on the landscape than the people who live there can stand, then no other state will take on what Montana has taken on. Never. Why would they?"
Hal Herring is a contributing editor at Field and Stream magazine and has written for HCN since 1997. He lives with his family in Augusta, Montana.