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.