In the field with a Montana couple hunting wolves

  • Becky Frey and Ryan Counts scan the horizon in search of wolves.

    Anna Adams
  • Frey and Counts on the trail during a December 2012 wolf hunt in Montana.

    Neil LaRubbio
  • The hunters failed to locate any wolves, but Counts managed to find and kill a mountain lion on the last day of the expedition.

    Becky Frey
  • Montana aims to maintain a population of roughly 400 to 500 wolves, and has approved more aggressive hunts. Here, a wolf taken in Montana's Bitterroot Mountains by an unnamed hunter.

    Kenton Rowe

We're hunting wolves on an Arctic December morning in Montana, just north of Yellowstone National Park. Ryan Counts and Becky Frey lead me along a hillside above a shelf of open grass and sage known as Decker Flats. The local hunter gossip pinpointed a pack in this area the final day of elk hunting season, one week ago, and since wolves circuitously patrol their territory, they will return soon.

Counts and Frey, a couple who live on a nearby cattle ranch, are dressed in battered layers of wool. We shuffle down a snow-packed trail into a sagebrush coulee. Airborne icy particles melt on our faces. Their little cow dog, Minnie, scares up a pod of mule deer, as the cobalt sky gently empties into dawn. Suddenly, wild barking erupts from a steep draw ahead. Frey and Counts lean their rifles against a boulder and pull out binoculars. Two coyotes yap about 600 yards below, among fallen ponderosas. Then a new form shoulders through the trees: an adult male mountain lion. It briefly confronts the coyotes, then slinks back uphill like a furry commando.

"That right there makes this whole trip worth it," says Counts. We chuckle like penguins. Most people never see predators in the wild, and witnessing the faceoff of two species is extraordinary.

He and Frey refocus their attention on a 75-head elk herd on the edge of Decker Flats, a quarter-mile in the opposite direction. This is how they hunt wolves: Find the elk herd and glass the fringes for the lurking pack.

Congress authorized this hunt when it removed wolves from endangered species protection in 2011, after more than a decade of court battles. Environmentalist lawyers had delayed hunting long enough for the total wolf population in the U.S. Northern Rockies to grow to 1,500 or so -- five times larger than the original goal of the federal wolf-restoration program.

A previous government program extirpated local wolves in the 1920s, paying Counts' grandfather and other hunters a bounty for each wolf killed. These days, Counts -- who's a hunting guide when he's not working on the ranch -- accepts the presence of wolves as long as he can hunt them. He believes in maintaining population control and relishes the satisfaction of problem-solving the hunt for a smart and able predator.

While some environmentalists still work to spare wolves from death by bullet, a new era is already unfolding. State wildlife agencies in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming are taking the lead, controlling the population by hunting and trapping, but stopping short of extirpation.

To kill a wolf, a hunter has to be either very lucky -- stumbling across one while hunting something else, for instance -- or very skilled. Counts, who learned hunting from his father, rode his horse 14 hours into the Hell Roaring Wilderness, a ways uphill of here, twice in one week in October 2009 when a break in the court battles allowed an initial round of wolf hunting. He slept in the dirt and, on the last day, he spotted 527F, a well-known and beloved alpha female from Yellowstone's Druid Pack, trotting across a low meadow outside the park. Counts shot her on the run at 350 yards.

Marilyn Wargo
Marilyn Wargo Subscriber
May 14, 2013 03:24 PM
I don't care how any of you do this it is a pity you killed one of the public's wolves in the s***storm of misinformation and misdirection caused by greed and ignorance and orchestrated by corporate powers. It just makes you part of the problem. Stop killing our wolves. This is a blood sport not a 'fair hunt' or even close to it. Trophy hunting is disgusting and not ever needed. Use your skill to shoot an elk or deer to eat. Leave our few predators alone. They have no chance against you and to me that is murder.
Charles Fox
Charles Fox Subscriber
May 14, 2013 04:01 PM
Are you going to eat that mountain lion and that wolf?

This is a great example of human behavior that contributes absolutely nothing, it only takes away. This is also an excellent example of the pathological hatred and disregard that is necessary to go far out of one's way to destroy wildlife.

If you wanted to have a really good time you would torture the animals to death, like trappers do.
william huard
william huard Subscriber
May 14, 2013 04:22 PM
This article made me very angry. There is nothing rational about the wolf issue. The Federal government wants wolves treated like any other animal.... They aren't are they? In the late 1800's when Mr counts grandfAther killed one of the 10000 alone in Montana with a rancher bounty- people in Montana are hysterical with 600 wolves? Montana just reported the best k hunting in decades. In 1995 when wolves were reintroduced there were 95000 elk. The latest elk census reported 125000 elk. Meanwhile mtFG will allow the killing of wolves until march 31st- when some unlucky wolves will be in a state of advanced gestation. Maybe Mr counts in all of his arrogance gain read the introduction in his paper which is a tribute to 527 and the decimated Cottonwood pack- when after the hunt the wolf biologist commented- "we didn't think wolves would be this sensitive to a firearms hArvest....[…]/Wolf_Report_20120503.pdf
william huard
william huard Subscriber
May 14, 2013 07:00 PM
I want to point out a few more things. Bill Hoppe just killed a collared Yellowstone wolf for "apparently" killing some of his sheep that he put out unattended in the YELLOWSTONE ecosystem......The website ELK INC claimed that one of the sheep killing wolves was killed...good you got one they all said....GPS verified that the wolf killed was not involved in the depredations......This is what wolves face......A Rancher who allows his private property to be killed and then screams "private property rights." Did I mention that this same fella rents cabins in North Yellowstone to tourists during the summer who want to see the diverse wildlife including Wolves....A Montana judge blocks a decision by MTFG to protect Yellowstone Wolves who are being targeted by outfitters outside of Yellowstone.......The judge is a pro NRA judge who then retires and hands the case to a relative and a Rancher( probably from the same family)......who rules in favor of Ranchers and a few outfitters( a few hundred dollars in hunting tags compared to the hundreds of thousands in wolf tourism dollars.....Who is behind this move......the predator haters in the Montana "sportsmen" for "some" fish and wildlife- and Big Game Forever- a "Sportsmen" affiliated group who spews misinformation and lies about wolves and predators......These are the same groups whose founder Don Peay in YEWTAW just received a second 300,000 taxpayer dollar payout to lobby for a nationwide delisting of wolves. Last year the "sportsmen" (all laugh here) made sure the YEWTAW legislature enacted a bounty of 50.00 to kill 20,000 coyotes to artificially boost mule deer numbers.....These fake "conservation groups" are predator haters- just like Ranchers......These wolves don't stand a chance do they? 2013 and we are back to bounties? Talk about rabid....You give people facts like George Weurthner does and people just deny the facts- like facts don't matter.......Decimated game herds and livestock depredation....repeat after me....decimated game herds and livestock depredation.....
Carolyn Shea
Carolyn Shea
May 14, 2013 07:42 PM
Lovely people. So compassionate.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
May 14, 2013 08:16 PM
That was a fun story but I have to admit, that part where you used the scope to glass gave me the heabie jeebies. Was that Frey's idea?
William Petersen
William Petersen Subscriber
May 15, 2013 08:36 AM
As an outdoorsman, environmentalist and hunter I personally find the author's notion that he thinks Frey deserves to hunt apex predators because he's hunted longer is a bit of a stretch. I doubt that LaRubbio really feels that way but felt it necessary to equivocate the situation. I sport fish too but I don't feel I "deserve" to hunt and kill sharks. I don't fish for them either.

LaRubbio might be romanticizing a bit too much to think that, thanks to the very liberal hunting permitting in MT, that hunters will want the wolves around enough to not hunt them to extinction. That a majority of professional guides fought wolf introduction because the wolves competed with hunters. I hunt for food and because it give me the opportunity to get outside and enjoy the 'place' I happen to be. Whether that's hunting on a ranch or public lands. I don't hunt for sport nor for trophies nor to prove my bravado. But there are plenty out there that do and their disregard for healthy ecosystems is prevalent through poaching and hyperbolic stances by local law enforcement, politicians, dubious outfitters.

If folks like Frey think they've "deserved" or have a "right" to hunt apex predators, they're being a bit myopic. It's one thing to protect your home and livestock on private property or protecting them on grazing leases (in the moment of predation) it's quite another to assume the right to hunt any apex predator on public lands because they pose an existential threat to your livelihood. His "right" to graze and hunt on public lands is really a privilege. One that comes with great responsibility to continue such privileges.

That mountain lion and wolf permits are ridiculously cheap and easily obtainable says much about a hunter deserving the opportunity to hunt them. The permit prices and availability should be commiserate with the estimated population and rarity of such animals. So if the Montana Fish & Wildlife wanted to "manage" 10% of wolf population out of 1000 animals then that would mean 100 permits available by lottery and comes with a hefty price tag. 60,000 wolf tags over three states is not just ludicrous but has absolutely NOTHING to do with management of wolf populations, let alone bear or mountain lions, and everything to do with eradication by "management."
Michael Kirkpatrick
Michael Kirkpatrick Subscriber
May 15, 2013 04:12 PM
Thanks, William. I agree with your sentiments. I think there's may be a rational way to frame the killing of wolves in order to preserve ecosystem balance, but the current program is not achieving that nor aiming to achieve it. As in LaRubbio's last piece, which he alone thought was benign, he neglects science in favor of high adventure. Unfortunately this is often a weakness of embedded journalism.

One, he states that even though one-in-two Northern Rockies wolves was killed by private citizens or government officials in the 2012-2013 season, AND that research suggests that greater than 22% take will reduce the overall population, "...there are probably still more than 1,500 wolves in the three states." Which is it? How those claims can be made to jive requires some journalistic sleight-of-hand. Is the science right or wrong?

Two, the food web dictates that the positive gains wolves have helped bring about in Northern Rockies ecosystems, such as improvements in the quality of riparian areas, come at a cost to local elk, moose, and domesticated (read: exotic) livestock populations. To say these are "negative effects" is disingenuous; you can't have over-abundant herbivores co-existing with healthy, functioning ecosystems. Again, the science is lacking. In addition it would have been appropriate to have some mention of the compensation program undertaken by Defenders of Wildlife and others, at least in Wyoming, which is funded by conservationists to reimburse individual ranchers for livestock predation. To omit any discussion of that important program makes it sound like ranchers have no choice but to a) grit their teeth, or b) take up arms in defense of their herds. These are not the only options.

This was a more thoughtful piece than LaRubbio's previous effort, but there are still some evident blind spots in his reporting. Despite his more earnest attempts to offer a balanced perspective, this article represents just one side in the debate about the role and future of wolves in the Northern Rockies.
Neil LaRubbio
Neil LaRubbio Subscriber
May 15, 2013 11:08 PM
Thanks William and Michael for your well-written and thoughtful comments. Let me first address this notion of deserving to hunt wolves. Be careful not to attribute more to Frey and Counts than was written in the story. I never portrayed a sense of entitlement to them. They hunt predators for two reasons: game management and the challenge of the hunt. Whether you would or would not hunt for those reasons is neither here nor there. And your decision to abstain does not make their decision unethical. If humans were ocean dwellers, perhaps we’d manage sharks and giant octopi in the same way we manage wolves. Shark fishing, however, is a separate issue.

Don’t doubt the challenge of this hunt. With a little more than 600 wolves taken in three states, which, combined sold over 60,000 tags, that’s a 1 percent success rate. One hundred high-priced tags, as you suggest, would yield one wolf per year. Though, maybe 20,000 high-priced tags would suit you. It's a good area of debate. There is no journalistic sleight-of-hand with my numbers, however. At the end of 2012, wolf managers believe at least 1500 wolves resided in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, probably more. The amount of wolves taken through the hunting season of 2012-2013 are largely offset by their prodigious breeding this spring, so the 1500 number is a very safe estimate.

You draw the correct conclusion, however, and this is where I’d encourage environmentalists to focus their attention. Sustaining a viable wolf population is unreasonable without science-based quotas. Any take over 22 percent will reduce numbers (not necessarily by an equal percentage), and people working together can craft precise population targets, acceptable pack dynamics and methods of sustaining those. Just don’t spook the herd by suggesting that hunting alone can eradicate wolves. If the population decreases, wolves only become harder to hunt, so that 1 percent success rate drops lower. The real reason they were eradicated 100 years ago was because people could legally poison them.

Please understand my primary motivation for writing this story is to dispel prejudice. To say that “myopic” wolf hunters show “disregard for healthy ecosystems” and that they sport hunt just to prop up their bravado is simply perpetuating the same recycled excuses for demonizing the other side. That’s a view invented from the headlines and doesn’t reflect an understanding of who 60,000 wolf hunters, state and federal wildlife biologists, ranchers and their supporters actually are. It doesn’t reflect the subjects of my story. I expect subsequent comments to follow the same vein. No one wants to give up their hard-thought opinion about these creatures. But there’s a common ground within this 100-year debate, and I believe my story is pretty close to representing that.
Adam Neff
Adam Neff
May 18, 2013 03:08 PM
@CF, I'm assuming they eat the cougar, it's one of the more delicious critters out there. As for a wolf, I've been waiting for someone to post how they taste.
Michael Kirkpatrick
Michael Kirkpatrick Subscriber
May 19, 2013 02:15 AM
Thanks for your well considered reply, Neil. I appreciate your openmindedness and your effort to dispel prejudices. As someone who knows of wolf hunters personally, however, I would contend that some of those prejudices are not just headlines but are in fact pervasive. "Propping up one's bravado" does weigh (heavily) into some peoples' support of wolf hunting, whether or not it describes the subjects of your story. It would be a good thing (for wolves and for ecosystems) if would-be hunters were purely motivated by interests of game management and the challenge of the hunt, but those motivations do not sell 60,000 permits, at least not where I'm from. To suggest that the people in your story are representative of the majority is, I think, too generous, and does not confront the reality of why many people in the western states are steadfastly anti-wolf. Barry Lopez's "Of Wolves And Men", although a couple of decades old, is still a good primer on many modern day attitudes toward wolves, attitudes that have not necessarily evolved since reintroduction.
William Petersen
William Petersen Subscriber
May 20, 2013 02:10 PM

Thanks for the reply. I wasn't trying to imply some sort of unethical stance to Frey and Counts because they hunt apex predators for the challenge and management. But often-times the line of "management" gets blurred by those who would use it as a way to eradicate apex predators. That I wouldn't hunt a mountain lion, wolf or bear for sport doesn't mean I don't appreciate the challenge or the skill involved and I'm a firm believer in fair chase. Spotting these animals in the wild at a distabce is a great pleasure and only makes me appreciate their existence more so. And while the 1% permit success rate might seem low, it doesn't take into account illegal poaching and poisoning. If we hunters really do want to keep the apex predators around for those that want the challenge then we have a greater responsibility to police ourselves and check the anti-wolf/bear/mountain lion rhetoric at the door regardless if you are pro or anti-hunting.

But I do think the discussion needs to be had whereby the number of available permits & the price for the privilege should be commiserate with the populations being managed. That might mean moratoriums some seasons but that also means diligence in estimating populations. And because of the large hunting ranges of these animals it would stand to reason that MT, WY, & Idaho and even CO could enter into a regional "management" agreement whereby the permitting and management goals are less reliant upon the political winds of the moment and based on more sound science and an understanding that the issue of apex predator protection & management isn't just a "State" thing. Perhaps the regional management plan would go a long way for the States in question to establish a realistic management plan that wouldn't have the Feds vacillating between de-listing and re-listing every few years.

As humans, I think our hubris gets the best of us sometimes when we think we can "manage" the wild and leads us towards short sighted gains to the detriment of long term goals.

All in all, I woud like to say that it's an excellent article and HCN needs more reporting like this.
Hal Partenheimer
Hal Partenheimer Subscriber
Aug 01, 2013 03:14 PM
I believe it's 'commensurate' not 'commiserate'.
chad mehan
chad mehan
Oct 26, 2013 12:28 PM
Most every huntable animal is managed and has a quota so wolves should also be managed under a quota for management. So sounds like we have gave a few tree huggers on here if it were your animals being killed while your trying to make a living you would want the wolves managed too.
Dale Lockwood
Dale Lockwood Subscriber
Oct 28, 2013 08:41 PM
To manage and have a quota on wolves to control numbers is good,and also realize both wolf and people can share on preying on otheranimals like deer and elk.
It is good to realize wolves have a place in the ecosystem also. They are trying to make a living also.