In the field with a Montana couple hunting wolves

by Neil LaRubbio

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.

Frey shot a wolf in a national forest near Ennis, Mont., in 2011. Her father taught her to hunt while she was growing up in Big Timber, a sun-washed town on the antelope plains near the Crazy Mountains. She earned a master's in veterinary science at the University of Idaho, and her cheery demeanor comes in handy during the tough conversations that accompany her work as the lead biologist for the federal interagency bison management project, probably the most contentious wildlife issue next to wolves. She believes in careful wildlife management, and says that now that wolves are thriving, they no longer need special protection.

Some people are appalled by the sight of dead animals. For Counts and Frey, it's just part of life. The local culture places a high value on hunting, with many people making their first kills as teenagers or even younger. That's clear one night during my reporting trip, when I meet Counts and Frey at the River's Edge Bar & Grill in a tiny town called Emigrant. A representative of almost every big game species is enshrined on the walls. Counts' son, Clay, wears a trapper's hat and silk scarf just like his father and they both order French dip. Clay coolly reports that he shot a bull elk earlier in the year, just shy of his 12th birthday. When the snow melts this spring, Counts and Frey will look for black bear in the richest new grass. This technique, also learned from their fathers, has led them to many bruins, and they've each killed one as a trophy.

"It's more of a challenge to kill a wolf or a bear," says Counts. "The challenge is most of it. You can be out all day and see two tracks. They're hard, hard, hard to hunt."

One of Counts' friends joins our table. He takes clients on mountain lion hunts, he says; he's treed over 375 big cats, but killed only five himself. Another 35 went to his clients. For the most part, however, he shoots them with his digital camera. Wildlife photography fetches more money than selling pelts in the 21st century.

When Counts carries his rifle into the woods, he portals back to what he sees as a less cynical era, when hunting fed and clothed frontier people. But this serenity can be fleeting. In 2009, when wolf advocates learned that Counts had shot Wolf 527F, some of them posted his contact information online; for the next year, he dealt with hate mail, death threats and paranoid nights when every headlight on the road shook his nerves.

Fear and distrust continue to dictate the wolf hunting debate, with extremists on both sides grinding out hyperbole, while contemplative, forward-thinking dialogue remains harder to find. Before I left for this trip, I blogged on the High Country News website about the status of the wolf-hunting season. I saw it as a fairly benign post, but the comments from readers were consistently irate, even violent. Some threatened my life.

Wolf recovery might be the Endangered Species Act's greatest achievement. They've expanded their range all the way to the Pacific, and here in Montana, they've had positive impacts on the ecosystem by keeping the elk moving, allowing overgrazed riparian bushes, grass and trees species to recover. At the same time, they've had negative effects on some local elk and moose populations as well as on livestock. Wolves kill hundreds of cattle and sheep every year; just their presence fills livestock with anxiety and requires ranchers to more intensively manage their herds.

The popularity of wolf hunting is obvious: The three states sold more than 60,000 wolf tags during the 2012-2013 season alone. However, wolves also need good stewards. Current political momentum supports state wildlife agencies' determination to reduce the population, even though some biologists and conservationists worry that hunting and trapping will destroy pack dynamics and ruin the whole recovery effort.

Research indicates that any take above 22 percent of the regional population will cause population declines. In the fall 2012-early 2013 season, hunters and trappers killed more than 600 wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, and federal agents killed more than 200 to help protect livestock. It's likely that the regional population has declined for the first time since reintroduction in 1995, but given each spring's new pups, there are probably still more than 1,500 wolves in the three states.

Montana's government has just OK'd more aggressive wolf hunting, making licenses easier to obtain and allowing electronic wolf calls, but wolves are unlikely to be extirpated, as long as the states' policies are not completely severed from science-based quotas, population targets -- Montana aims to maintain roughly 400 to 500 wolves -- and fair chase standards. (Electronic calls, in my view, don't meet the standards of fair chase.)

Frey's birthday falls on the last morning of our wolf hunt. She's laughing and watching a video of country boys dancing Gangnam-style on her iPhone when I jump into the truck. We drive back up to Decker Flats, park and shuffle down the same snow-packed trail -- still dark and frosty. I can make out silhouettes of elk streaming across the meadow like a school of tuna. Something has spooked the herd.

We reach the granite boulder again and see that all the elk have left the grassland. Counts and Frey pan their binoculars back and forth. The sun rises. We side-hill back toward the meadow and stop at a solitary white pine. Counts points out something in the drainage below.

"Stay here," he says to me. "I'm going to go down here and kill this mountain lion."

His lion permit activated today, and there's a local quota for two females and four males. Through Frey's rifle scope, I watch Counts amble down a steep hill. I scan the trees but can't find the lion. Counts crouches, then stands up and cranes his neck over the drainage wall. Then he drops to his knees and crawls closer. He sits back and draws his rifle like he's pulling back an arrow on a bow.

BOOM! He fires once. Watches. Then skirts to his left. Draws up his rifle again -- BOOM!

He's standing over the dead cat when we arrive. A solemn wind trickles through the pines. She's not the tomcat we saw two days ago. This cat is young and pretty and female. Frey cradles her head in her hands. "Pretty neat," says Counts. None of us has much else to say.

Whether they're regarded with malice or reverence, whether killed by luck or skill, all predators risk becoming prey in their turn, largely because of hunters like Counts. He looks up from skinning the cat and asks me if I would do what he just did. I tell him, no, my modest hunting skills would dishonor an apex predator, even if my gun could kill it. He understands. I tell him if I spent as much time in these mountains with these animals as he does, I might feel that I deserved a chance. In 10 years, maybe I'll solve my own wolf hunt. I believe the wolves will still be here, because deep down, most hunters want them around.

Neil LaRubbio, a former HCN intern and editorial fellow, is now a freelancer based in Colorado.

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