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"It has taken us 10 years to get that herd down to our objective," says Sime. "There was nothing sustainable at all about 22,000 elk there."
Sime adds, "We have some kick-butt Montana wildlife managers still saying, 'Wolves are impacting our wildlife.' Then they'll shift, and say, 'Well, they are impacting elk numbers.' I say, 'Where is that happening?' They can never point to the place. It's time for us—hunters, biologists, all of us—to recognize that wolves aren't killing the wildlife. Wolves are wildlife."
Once a sustainable wolf hunt exists, more hunters, and more landowners who have to live with wolves, may begin viewing the animal as just another member of the pantheon of wild animals that need protection and restoration in a world of burgeoning humanity. Wolf reintroduction was possible in large part because generations of hunters provided license money to restore deer and elk herds and preserve habitat. That same support, even at a much lower level (predator hunting has never been as popular as hunting animals valued as meat), could help give the wolf a place on the landscape forever.
What would a successful wolf hunt look like? Perhaps something like the hunt that Mike Ross, a wildlife biologist and wolf management specialist for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, went on this fall in the backcountry of the Upper Gallatin River.
"I'm 48 years old, and I've been hunting since I was 9, and I've never had a more exciting day of hunting in my life," Ross says.
Ross had a coveted permit, one of only five issued, drawn by lottery to hunt bull elk in what may be the world's best elk country.
"My girlfriend, Colleen, and I saw some pretty good bulls, but I was looking for at least a 340 (Boone and Crockett)," he says. "We heard wolves howling in the morning, and after lunch...10 wolves came out on an open ridge, flopped down in the sun, kind of belly-up. Colleen said, 'Let's go after them.'"
The two hunters crossed the river and climbed up to where they could see across to the ridge. "But they were gone," Ross says. The wolf pack was hidden in a patch of timber above them when Ross "howled them up."
"The woods just opened up," Ross says, "howls everywhere, coming down on us, just wild, and I thought for a second, 'How many bullets do we have?' Then there were wolves below us, too."
Ross howled again, and a big male wolf stepped from the timber above them. "He moved around us, and when he came out in the open, I shot him." The 6-year-old male wolf was black and weighed 117 pounds. Ross remains awed by the experience.
"If you went out there a hundred times and tried to do something like this, you couldn't do it," he says. "It was hunting, you know, where everything comes together all of a sudden. I think those wolves were in a competitive situation with another pack, and they came in like coming into a gang fight. I'll never forget it."
Ross says that he "got quite a bit of flak for shooting a wolf, people saying I exploited my job. I don't want anybody to think that. I was out hunting, I had a wolf tag, and we got into them. That's all."
On the map showing legal wolf kills from the 2009 season, there's a dense cluster of dots on the northern border of Yellowstone National Park. It marks the spot where nine wolves died at the hands of hunters on the high, windswept Buffalo Plateau, a world away from the wolf-livestock conflicts of the Madison Valley or the Bitterroot's frenetic urban interfaces. Some of the slain wolves had starred in documentaries made in the park, intimate records of their wild and dangerous lives set to soaring music. The collared alpha male of the much-chronicled Cottonwood Pack was killed, along with his collared mate, known to researchers as Number 527, and her daughter, Number 716, known to park wolf-watchers as Dark Female.
That broke the hearts of many wolf lovers—the Los Angeles Times wrote a sort of eulogy to 527, as did Laurie Lyman, a blogger for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Lyman called for a buffer zone around the park to protect wolves that spend most of their lives inside park boundaries. Defenders of Wildlife and a host of other environmental groups had already taken their anger at the hunt to the courts, suing to get the wolf back on the endangered species list. Mike Leahy of Defenders points out that between them, hunters and federal shooters wiped out more than half of Montana's wolves in 2009. His organization would like to see 450 wolves in each of the three states before delisting occurs.