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The first day of the hunt was hard on wolves that had never been hunted before: Ten were killed. An average of 20 wolves per week were killed after that. The wolf season closed on Nov. 16, a few days ahead of schedule; hunters had killed 72 wolves out of the 75-wolf quota set by state wildlife biologists, and the quota was about to be surpassed.
Seven of the slain wolves wore radio collars, putting a dent in research efforts. Still, most people involved in wolf restoration saw the Montana hunt as a success.
"We were on the right track with our quota system," says Sime. "Until recently, there's been only two points on the line—from one side, we got 'kill them all,' from the other side, 'protect them all.' Well, only two points on the line won't work."
Sime hopes that the hunting season will "mature the constituency for wolves," inspiring a new generation of hunters who admire and advocate for wolves as game animals. That model worked for mountain lions. Why shouldn't it work for wolves?
From 1872 to 1962, there was a bounty on lions, followed by open season until 1971, when they were finally reclassified as big game. Since then, lion hunters have matured greatly. Whenever deer hunters say more lions need to be killed, lion hunters demand in turn that lions be protected. Montana currently has anywhere from 1,800 to 2,200 mountain lions, and hunters killed 309 of them in 2008. The big cats still inhabit most of their original habitat—success from a biodiversity standpoint.
Sime believes that those who oppose the wolf season are playing a dangerous game.
"You can have wolves as game animals, and hunters who pay to hunt them, or you go with Wildlife Services, and have the taxpayers pay for the control," she says.
Wildlife Services is the federal agency tasked with killing "nuisance" animals, including everything from feral dogs that attack people, to coyotes that threaten livestock, to birds that hang out around airports. Federal shooters killed about 145 wolves in Montana last year, out of an estimated population of 524.
George Killebrew, an electrician by trade, is a longtime Bitterroot resident. Born in Mississippi, Killebrew is proud of being part Cherokee. His ancestry, he says, makes him reluctant to hunt wolves or other predators: "My upbringing tells me that maybe these animals are my ancestors, coming back to help us out." But as wolf packs expanded, both around his home near Darby and in most of his hunting country, he bought a wolf tag.
"We just really depend on an elk every year," he says, "and we just couldn't seem to find them anymore. Three years ago, we'd see a wolf track or two every once in a while, but this past year, there were tracks everywhere we went...but no elk."
Wolf howls near their home made Killebrew and his wife uneasy about the safety of their Brittany dogs. On an early morning elk hunt to a favorite spot on the west side of the Bitterroots, Killebrew spotted a single set of wolf tracks along a ridge-top trail. Then he saw the wolf. "She was coming in at about 150 yards, and when she turned broadside, I shot her," he says.
Even though Killebrew was using a full-size elk cartridge—a .300 Winchester Magnum—the wounded wolf turned and ran. So he shot again, and that time she went down. "At that second shot, she let out a bloodcurdling howl," he says. He does not regret killing her. "There's just too many of them now. They need to have some fear of people, too."
Like Killebrew, many big-game hunters are convinced that rapidly growing wolf packs have devastated Montana's elk herds, preventing hunters from filling their freezers and outfitters from guiding clients to a decent bull. In the Bitterroot, this view is partly right, partly wrong, says state wildlife biologist Craig Jourdonnais, who frequently flies the Bitterroot country, counting elk and deer on their winter ranges. He says that elk numbers in the state remain healthy overall, but that the cow-to-calf ratio in some areas is low, partly because of wolves.
"That's definitely a red flag for us," he says.
Whenever the cow-to-calf ratio falls too low, the state has to put a halt to antlerless elk hunting. And that, of course, is bad for meat hunters, who tend to blame wolf predation for their empty freezers and higher food bills. Jourdonnais says wolves are not the only reason for the diminished herds, though.
"We have so many changes in the Bitterroot," he explains. "A new predator on the ground. All those wildfires. Knapweed taking over, and the chopping up of prime winter range for subdivisions. You might say that we do have a lot of wolves in this valley, and not all of 'em are the four-legged kind. If you are hoping to hunt the same way you did 30 years ago, you are going to be disappointed."
And if you're hoping to hunt the way you did 10 years ago north and west of Yellowstone, you might not even recognize the place. The northern Yellowstone elk herd, once a mighty, and fantastically destructive, 22,000 strong, is down to around 6,600 animals. Cow-calf ratios in the region are at record lows. Hunters and outfitters are furious. But biologists, while concerned, take a different view.