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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CROWN OF THE CONTINENT COMMUNITY CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
  • ASSISTANT FARM DIRECTOR
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!