Hunting the hunters: Wolf hunting in the West
State of the Hunt
Bob Inman, the Carnivore and Fur-bearer Coordinator for Montana Department of Wildlife and Parks says Montana has had wolf hunts for six years, but not consecutively. “The first season was in 2009 and then we sat it out in 2010 because of litigation to stop the hunts,” he says.
“We started with a state-wide quota of only 75 wolves because we wanted to begin conservatively and see how it was going to work. Since then, we’ve incrementally ramped up the season and in 2012 added trapping.” Montana has a combined bag limit of five wolves per person total—which can be obtained by hunting and/or trapping.
The hunting season begins in early September. If someone is archery hunting for other game and has a wolf tag, they can legally take a wolf. “The wolf season goes through March 15th and trapping season goes from December 15th through the end of February, while furs are prime,” Inman says.
Montana and Idaho are currently the only states with wolf seasons. Wyoming is trying to have a hunt but wolves are still listed/protected in that state. “When the three states in 2008 presented their management plans to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (for state management of wolves), Wyoming’s plan was to manage wolves in northwestern Wyoming but if wolves came south and east they wanted an open season. That wasn’t accepted, so they are still hashing out the details of their plan,” Inman explains.
Washington, Oregon and California are having problems with expanding wolf populations impacting wildlife and livestock, and may try to have wolf hunting seasons to help control these predators, but haven’t accomplished this yet. “There are also a lot of wolves in Minnesota and Michigan but currently no hunting season,” he says. In 2012, management of wolves was turned over to the states in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, but after three hunting seasons the protesters won in court and hunting was banned again in those states.
States must abide by certain guidelines in managing wolves. “One of the reasons that wolf recovery and delisting was so successful, compared with something like grizzly bears, is that USFWS set specific goals for recovery and the states met and exceeded those goals a long time ago. Each state had to have at least 15 breeding pairs and 150 wolves,” says Inman. This minimum was met by Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Montana met those goals in 2002, yet it was seven more years before hunting was allowed.
“A lot of litigation held it up and the wolf population kept growing. We still have to document wolf numbers. As long as we don’t fall below the minimums we can control numbers by hunting.” Montana started with a number of management units, and quotas. There are no longer quotas—with the exception of areas right outside national parks.
In 2008-2009 there was a lot of controversy and conflict, but since opening a hunting season the number of livestock losses and complaints has dropped significantly. Hunting has become an effective management technique, and helped bring numbers into better balance with prey species like elk, moose and deer; in some areas the expanding wolf populations decimated elk herds and moose populations.
Hunters have to be determined, and lucky, however, to shoot a wolf. “Success rates are not high. Hunting and trapping wolves is not easy. They are very smart and wary. Here in Montana we take about half of our wolf harvest by hunting and half by trapping. Before anyone can get a wolf-trapping license, we require that they take a wolf-trapping course. Some people who are new to trapping might end up catching a pet, and this gives trapping a black eye; this is part of why we do the course,” says Inman.
Wolf biologists continue to monitor populations in Montana and Idaho. “We have to document the actual number of wolves, and that costs money. Wolf tags and licenses are an important source of revenue to help offset those costs. This is the only way the state can afford to manage wolves. Earlier we had to have a lot of federal funding, so now we are on our own and have to come up with it somewhere else.”
The controversy over hunting and trapping continues, however, and this fall there is a proposition on the ballot in Montana to ban all trapping on public lands. “That would impact our wolf season, and our ability to control their numbers,” says Inman.
The howl of a wolf has long been used to add drama and suspense in the movies. It has the same effect for hunters.
Bear Creek Outfitters, headquartered in Darby, Montana, offers guided wolf hunts along with hunts for deer, elk, bear and mountain lion. Jim Daine, one of the outfitters, says they’ve had several hunters over the past few years with wolf tags.
“Hunting is an effective way to help control wolf populations. We had a large number of wolves until hunting seasons were finally allowed. At first, after wolves were introduced, they were only in a few areas, but they ate all the prey and expanded their territories. We realized that as soon as it was legal to hunt them we had to get pack numbers down or we wouldn’t have any game animals left,” he says.
“Deer and elk numbers are still down but we’re seeing a slight increase again in the elk. We haven’t seen much of a moose comeback yet, but the ones that survive have learned to stay hidden,” says Daine. Wolves are at the top of the food chain and if humans don’t control them they just keep expanding.
Hunting wolves is not easy. The main tactics are to spot/track and stalk or spot and shoot. The Fish and Game Department sells an unlimited number of tags but there are quotas in some areas; once those target numbers are reached, the hunt is closed. “Here in the Selway-Bitterroot wilderness we have no quota, and a longer season (from September 1 until end of June), because there are not many hunters that come here to hunt wolves. The out-of-state fees for wolf tags are less expensive, too,” Daine says.
It’s a challenge to find and kill a wolf. “We keep an eye and ear out for wolves as we are guiding hunters for elk or other game. If we happen to see one, you might have a few seconds to get ready and try to connect,” he says.
Daine had one wolf hunter from the Midwest and another from Denmark in a group that was hunting bears. They happened upon an elk kill and went closer, hoping to see a bear, and a wolf stepped out of the brush 40 yards away. “My hunter was ready, and shot it,” he said.
On another trip, two of their hunters from Kentucky–Rex Parsons and his son—were successful. Parsons says that hunting trip in January two years ago was the best adventure of his life. “We flew to Missoula, and then to the Selway with Jim Daine. The wolves had decimated the elk herd in there. The elk get pushed down into the low country in January and February and wolves massacre the elk because there are no people in there, that time of year. We were hunting wolves and mountain lions,” Parsons says.
A pilot flew them in from Hamilton one at a time in a Piper Super Cub. “That’s a pretty small plane! There was the pilot, one of us, and a hound. My son is a big kid, 6-foot-4 with broad shoulders; his shoulders were wider than the fuselage. So he flew into the Selway with the windows open in that little plane. But the cold didn’t bother him; he was pretty excited. The Super Cub landed on skis on the snow. The flight in that little plane was worth the whole trip. It can fly slow and close to the ground, and that country was absolutely gorgeous.”
The guides set up base camp at the little airstrip, and Parsons and his son hiked nine miles up Bear Creek in knee-deep snow with their packs. While hiking in, they cut fresh wolf tracks. Two wolves were tracking a mountain lion. “Wolves harass mountain lions because they are competitors,” Parsons says.
They hiked on up Bear Creek and pitched their tent—a rope and a tarp–and some ground pads to sleep on, with military arctic sleeping bags. “We had a couple hours before dark, so we started up Bear Creek and did some howling just with our voices, with no response,” he says.
They sat there about 30 minutes looking across the valley, and saw a whitetail buck running for its life. “I told my son to get ready, because the only time I’ve ever seen a deer run like that was when it was being chased by German Shepherds here at home,” Parsons says.
After a few minutes, they saw a big black wolf and big gray wolf on the trail of that deer. “We waited until they got straight across from us and then my son let out a howl. The wolves stopped dead in their tracks and looked right at us. We were 300 yards away, and I was down and ready with my rifle. When they stopped, I shot the big gray alpha wolf,” says Parsons. It weighed about 130 pounds.
“We had to cross Bear Creek to get to it, and my son lost his balance and got both feet wet. The temperature was about 8 degrees and he had to stand there with wet feet the whole time we were skinning that wolf.”
They got back to their camp and there wasn’t any wood for a fire. “What saved us is that Jim Daine made me take his little Jetboil camp heater. I call it a hippy heater because all the hikers carry them.”
They took the wool liners out of the wet boots and stuck the heater into each wool liner until it got dry. The next morning when they hiked out with the wolf, his feet were dry. But their wool bib overalls had been wet up to the knees, coming across that creek.
“When we crawled out of our little snow cave and put those on, we had to beat the frozen overalls on a rock until they got pliable enough to put them on.”
Parsons has hunted there for 25 years, and this trip was the most fun he’s ever had. “We saw bobcats and mountain lion tracks, and wound up getting two wolves on that hunt. I like seeing all the wildlife, but wolves are indiscriminate killers. I’ve seen a 2-year-old cow elk that wolves pulled down and they only ate about five pounds of meat, and went on to make another kill. If they run across something they can kill, they will kill it, whether they are hungry or not. They are really hard on the game,” he says.
Opening the season on wolves has helped. There are not as many wolves as there were a few years back. “But they are smart. The ones in there now are very elusive. All of us have heard one pack howling, many times, and have never been able to see them,” says Parsons.
A number of sportsmen in Idaho and Montana have taken the opportunity to hunt wolves, now that there is a legal hunting season. Dan Austin, a 52-year-old life-long resident of Salmon, Idaho has been fortunate to kill three wolves–in 2011, 2013 and 2014. “I’ve spent a lot of time at it, and called all the ones that I’ve been able to shoot. The wolves are smart, though, and wised up to that tactic; it doesn’t work as well anymore,” he says.
A person has to be determined, and lucky. “Some of the younger guys who are in good shape and can walk seven miles straight uphill on snowshoes often find wolf tracks and follow them. I am out there a lot however, because I trap a little in the winter, so I am always looking for wolves and trying to call them,” says Austin.
The wolf season in eastern Idaho opens at the end of August and goes through the end of March. When a person is hunting deer or elk, they can also shoot a wolf if they have a wolf tag.
Austin spent six weeks last winter in Panther Creek, driving over there early in the morning every Friday. During that time he found 17 dead elk–wolf kills–right along the road. He’s tracked wolves, but sometimes just bumps into them. “You don’t always get a shot, because they can be very elusive. I’ve missed two that I tried to shoot. You have to be in shape, because they can go a long ways!”
Austin says they are the most exciting animals to hunt. “One time I was just scouting for deer and saw two wolves a couple miles away. I had my call with me and sat down and started calling. I thought it might be a half hour before they could get to me, if they could even hear me,” he says.
He was sitting in tall sagebrush and had the call going, and peeked his head up. “There was one looking straight at me, about 60 yards away! I got back down, got the scope cover off my gun, turned the call off, and looked back up, and there were eight of them 30 yards away coming at me at a dead run!” he says.
“I was shaking, but I shot a big black one, and shot at another and missed. That was intense! The two I saw off in the distance were huge, probably the alpha male and female. I think those big ones let the younger ones run in first, or else most of the pack was closer to me when I started calling. Those wolves had killed one of the rancher’s cows and had been eating on that,” says Austin.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the June 19, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News