We took a seat under the awning of a cabin. Ralph told me that his father, Vernon, started the family business nearly 100 years ago. It’s the only kind of work Ralph has ever known. “My whole entire life,” he told me. Following Vernon’s death, fissures emerged between the boys. Warren went one way, Ralph another. They haven’t spoken in years. Ralph’s view on Yellowstone’s wolves is the polar opposite of his brother’s. He’d be happy to see hunting north of the park shut down altogether. For him, what happened last year was too sickening to witness again.

“I friggin’ watched that thing, and it’s not a wolf hunt,” Ralph told me. “It’s killing is what it is.”

Much of that killing, Ralph said, was orchestrated by a crew of around 20 locals he recognized from Gardiner, Emigrant, and Livingston. He knew many of the men and watched in his hikes with Sage how they attempted to lure wolves out of the park to mow them down with military-style rifles. He personally stumbled on the skinned corpses of three wolves in the snowy fields of Deckard Flats and elsewhere. The men were visibly on their phones during their hunts, Ralph said. Using a phone to coordinate a kill is a violation of Montana law and the principle of fair chase. FWP confirmed in email that it had received reports of hunters using two-way communications during the wolf hunt north of Yellowstone but that the department issued no citations in conjunction with the complaints. The brazenness, Ralph argued, spoke to a confidence that no one would challenge them. “Who’s going to catch them?” he asked. “We only have one game warden in this whole area, and it’s a big area, and most of the time he’s not here.”

“All these people know that,” he said. “They’re taking advantage of a weak system that we got up here.”

Ralph has had a front-row seat to the wolf fight since the beginning. The elk issue is key to understanding that story, he explained. “If I told you there wasn’t an effect, I’d be lying to ya,” he said. “There was an effect.” Ralph remembers the billboards that greeted hunters visiting Gardiner when he was growing up, welcoming them to the elk-hunting capital of the world. Wolves were entirely removed from the landscape; grizzlies and mountain lions were barely hanging on. Yellowstone’s Northern Range elk herd numbered in the tens of thousands and, like clockwork, migrated across Deckard Flats and areas north of the park, where they were met with firing lines of waiting hunters, many of whom were local outfitters’ paying clients. “I totally remember them years,” Ralph said. Things are different now, but not for the reasons the anti-wolf interests whispering in Gianforte’s ear would have people believe. “There’s a group of anti-wolfers that’s always saying that the wolves have decimated the elk,” Ralph said. “They have not.”

The winters immediately following the reintroduction were indeed rough on Yellowstone’s elk. “It’s like a shock to their system,” Ralph said. “They didn’t know what this creature was, and they didn’t know how to handle it.” As time went on, however, the elk adjusted their migration patterns, moved in smaller groups, and made themselves harder to hunt. Ralph’s observations echo decades of research on the subject. The animals found their way to areas where pressure from hunting — nonhuman and human alike — was less intense, namely on private lands. “There’s more elk down in Paradise Valley than there ever has been in modern human history,” Ralph said, adding that while ranchers complain about the abundance of the animals, “they won’t let the hunters on to thin the elk out.”

“It don’t make sense to me,” Ralph said. “But as far as the wolves destroying the elk population, that’s just BS.”

In years past, Ralph said, clients accepted that their elk expedition might not end in success. These days, they are far less accommodating. “It’s like you’re a babysitter most of the time,” he said. Often, the hunters he meets not only expect an elk, they expect a prime bull elk at peak breeding age. While they vigorously target those animals, they simultaneously blame wolves for their decline — this, despite decades of research showing that Yellowstone wolves overwhelmingly hunt female elk beyond their breeding years.

Ralph recalled a scene during a heavy winter a decade ago. Bulls were flowing out of the park into an area near Jardine. Hunters lined up to knock them down. “The next year,” Ralph said, “all these anti-wolfers were bitching at a fish and game meeting because wolves were killing the elk.” If that were the case, he noted, he would have made a fortune collecting the skulls and antlers the wolves left behind — he found one. He said, “It’s the hunters that killed them.”

In a decade, Ralph’s family’s business will mark its 100th anniversary. The milestone matters to him, and he’s determined to get there. If it weren’t a part of his life story, however, things might be different. “I’d quit right now,” he said. Ralph has had hunters tell him, with a straight face, that wolf tolerance will lead to wolves stealing human babies. “You just have to bite your tongue,” he said. Ralph knows that among Montana outfitters, his view on wolves is a minority opinion. “I pretty much guarantee if you went talk to every outfitter in Montana, they’re gonna tell you different,” he said. “They just get violent over it.” He speaks his mind all the same. Ralph believes that it’s important to stand up to the interests having their way with the state, especially if next year’s hunt ends up looking anything like the last.

In a sign of the mounting pressure that Montana is facing, FWP released a proposal this month to reintroduce wolf-killing quotas north of Yellowstone’s boundaries for this year’s hunt — albeit limits five times higher than what they were when Gianforte came into office. The additional measures that the governor legalized — baiting, snaring, and the rest of it — will remain on the books. Whether Gianforte’s hand-picked commissioners opt for a more hard-line approach remains to be seen. The deadline for public comment is Thursday.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/issues/53.9/south-wolves-perilous-path-to-colorado-wolf-restoration]

Meanwhile, the outcome of the federal relisting review still looms. It’s possible that the Biden administration will find that Gianforte and his counterparts in Idaho went too far and that the states can no longer be trusted to manage their wolves. While advocates on the ground clamor for that outcome, they worry that the administration, looking out across a hostile midterm political landscape, may be less than eager to revive one the West’s most heated culture-war battles.

What the pro-wolf contingent needs now is courage, Ralph told me before we parted ways. “They let these anti-wolfers intimidate them,” he said. “If I was one of those wolf groups, I’d be out hiking every day in this area. To hell with those guys. I wouldn’t let these guys push me out. It’s national forest.” Ralph does not advocate picking physical fights: “What I’m saying is, don’t let them dominate this place. Because that’s what’s happening. I see that. It’s getting worse.”

“If you run from them guys, they’re gonna take advantage,” Ralph warned. “It’s like a mean dog — if you show fear, he’s gonna come after you.”