Like Elk, But Tougher - Hunting Wolves
by Randy Newberg
Wolves just might be America’s most challenging big game. Spend a week chasing wolves and you may not like them, but you will respect them. Here’s what they taught me over 11 hard days of hunting—and why you should hunt one.
I heard Matt mumbling something frantic and excited. Way across the basin, a wolf had risen from its bed. Not just one wolf, but three. No, four. Holy smokes, five. All rising in sequence, stretching, urinating and doing the things wolves do.
They had been there for hours, lying in the thigh-high, snow-covered sage, completely hidden from us. Now we had wolves in our sights, all day to formulate and execute our plan, and a commanding view of their position. It looked like a slam-dunk.
An undisturbed snow patch served as chalkboard for the rudimentary map Matt and I drew. They had bedded just like elk, each facing a different direction, jacking the odds they’d smell us or see us before we could close the distance. Gauging the wind, we had to approach from the west. In short order, the plan was confirmed and we were on the stalk. Not wanting to jinx us, I hesitated to verbalize my confidence that a wolf would be wearing a tag by the end of the day.
The wind was in our favor. Twenty inches of powder silenced our approach. We scrupulously kept out of sight. Yet, when we peeked over the final crest expecting to see bedded wolves, the beds were there, but the wolves were gone. Vanished.
Wolves being wolves, they have a sixth sense. Kind of like the monarch bull that somehow escapes year after year, growing old by knowing and doing what hunters least expect.
What had been excitement was now an equal amplitude of disappointment. Five days of hard work got us to this point, and we failed to capitalize. We had only one option. Get on the fresh tracks and walk them down. Having hunted elk in this country, I knew what kind of hike lay ahead, as did Matt. At this point, it would take more than terrible terrain to soften our resolve to hang a tag on one of these ghosts.
Like trailing a big bull, wolves have a knack for choosing the steepest of terrain. Within four hours, this pack had used near-sheer faces, ice-caked scree slopes, and speed to make stale the trail. Somewhat physically exhausted, we were completely beat down mentally.
With the day about to end, we were left with no option. We staggered back to the trailhead, hardly a word spoken. It was a familiar feeling, well known to those who track a bull for hours and miles, forced to retreat by the coming darkness and struggling for answers on how to do it better the next time. Wolf hunting is hard work. So is elk hunting. If I had hunted elk that hard for that many long days, I could have filled four or five bull tags.
I was struck by how we had just hiked 12 miles according to my GPS, on some of the most celebrated hunting grounds in Montana, and not cut a single hunter track. Only on two of these five days had we seen other wolf hunters. That’s not the case here during elk season. It had been a fine mid-December day. Where were my fellow wolf hunters, my fellow elk hunters?
Given all that was invested by so many to create and sustain a wolf season, I expected to see a lot more hunters in the field. We hunters had complained long and loud of what unmanaged wolf numbers were doing to our elk herds. Now, in the prime of wolf season, in some of the best habitat, under excellent conditions, the woods were silent.
Montana officials extended our wolf season not once but twice, allowing us to chase wolves late into February. Once it was clear hunters would not meet the state’s wolf quota, an extension became a logical choice. Yet even with two extensions, we hunters fell short of the goal by 54 animals. Ouch.
Are we that inept at hunting wolves? Are wolves just that smart? Are we still just learning how to hunt them? Or are hunters just not interested in hunting wolves?
It was dark by the time we made it to the truck. Many hours earlier, we had listened to the pre-dawn howls from elk-fed wolves on a frosty morning. My boyhood dream to hunt wolves had become a reality.
Yet those howls signified more than just realizing a dream. This hunt was part of a bigger conservation plan, with wolves having lost their “untouchable” status when Congress gave state control to Idaho and Montana eight months prior. They were now big game, and as such, should now have the vested interest of sportsmen.
To me, the long battles in both the courts and Congress became worth it now that public-land hunters like me have the chance to chase wolves, tag in hand, bearing a rifle and pack.
I am an elk hunter, an avid elk hunter. Therefore, I am a wolf hunter. Can you be one without being the other? I suppose you can, but my DNA propels me into the hills to chase all things wild: predator or prey. I need to exercise the eons-old urge to hunt, the same as our ancestors have for thousands of years.
With Congress handing Montana and Idaho the reins to manage wolves, I aim to continue as part of this cycle for many more years. In the rear view are legions of lawyers and judges, where we hope they will stay. Freed to chase wolves, I am no longer a spectator, but a player in the game. I am a hunter.
No matter your opinion on wolves, spend a week chasing them, on their turf, at their game, and you are going to respect them. You may not like them, but you will respect them.
It took three days of hunting and howling before we spotted a wolf, which was little more than flashes of fur bouncing across a sage hillside. Yet it was a true wolf encounter, verified by tracks that took us to the steep ridges that turned down into north-facing, black timber haunts.
After five days, the cold, the miles, the terrain and the doubts were wearing me down. We had logged 8- to 12-mile days, with heavy packs, across snow-covered ridges, and had only one quick glimpse of running wolves to show for our efforts.
Sitting in the bitter cold morning darkness, listening to howls from the north reminded me of my childhood growing up on the banks of the Big Fork River in northern Minnesota. I would sit listening to the January howls of wolves calling for mates in the white pine forests across the river, dreaming that someday I would get to hunt them. Someday had finally come.
Matt Clyde, my partner on this hunt, had spent his youth hunting the thick country of northwest Montana. He had shared the same childhood dream, drawn from the sounds and sightings of wolves that roamed down from Canada, long before reintroduction had begun here in southwest Montana in 1995.
It was not until after New Year’s that Matt and I could get back in hot pursuit of wolves. We shifted our focus from the elk migration corridors to winter range. I had a theory: find the elk and you will find the wolves. We were going to put it to the test.
Things started where they left off. Lots of hiking, glassing and calling. All with the same result—nothing. We found the elk, hanging tight to the winter ranges of the Madison Valley. Seeing no wolves after the first two days hunting, my theory seemed to be just that—theoretical.
It was an unusually warm morning on our eighth straight day of hunting. Matt was glued to the spotting scope, watching a herd of 12 bulls to our north. I was scanning the southern flanks of our high position. I again heard Matt’s excited rambling, deciphering only two words: black and wolf. The two best words a wolf hunter can hear.
I ran to his position anxiously waiting for my chance behind the glass. Matt dialed up the eyepiece and stepped away, giving me a clear view of a black wolf hunched 50 yards below the bulls. We took turns at the glass, offering suggestions about strategy.
Though this black wolf was on a game range and off-limits to the public this time of year, he was only a half mile from where we could hunt him. If we could close the four-mile gap, we might be able to call him out off the game range.
When we finally got to a high vantage point, we could see the ridge where the wolf had been less than an hour previous. The bulls had moved east without any wolves that we could see following them. Matt started to call, though my expectations for a reply at high noon were low. Immediately, the woods to our south echoed back with howls. I spotted a big gray wolf sitting among the sage. It responded with a moaning howl to Matt’s next call. Other unseen wolves called again.
In the drainage between us and those game range bulls, I spotted a black wolf slowly trotting across a Forest Service road about a mile away. It was moving quickly away, and ironically, toward our original position. He was now in the sanctuary provided by a couple sections of private ground off-limits to our hunting, but he was high-tailing it toward public land.
Seeing no better option, we rallied back to our original position. It looked like the best place to set the ambush. Never had I been in such a crazed effort to put myself in position for any animal. Never had I wanted to fill a tag as badly as I did that day.
After hustling back to our spot, we saw the black wolf above and across from us at 1,200 yards.
Matt howled. It howled back. I silently begged, Please, please, come this way. Matt and the wolf talked for about three minutes. Finally tired of playing games, the wolf turned and trotted farther away, disappearing in the timber.
“Please tell me that chance did not just slip through our fingers,” I told Matt. “Please tell me the wolf was just circling to get a better view.”
No such luck. Gone. Another chance down the tubes.
Once again, wolves had put the slip on us. I had reconciled that we would never fill a wolf tag. The odds seemed just too stacked in their favor. I continued in silence, keeping my thoughts to myself, not wanting to be a downer for the three days that remained to hunt wolves.
Our depressed silence was hardly changed when shots rang from the north off a private ranch where the wolf had taken refuge. Early that morning we had watched some coyote hunters ply their talents. Instinctively, we squinted across the snow fields reflecting the midday sun, hoping maybe those shots would stir something up. Not a minute had passed when we spotted something bounding our way.
It was a wolf—one as black as the ace of spades.
We had no time to set up. It was a classic fire drill. I started ranging objects along the path the wolf seemed headed. We agreed Matt would have first shot.
He set the range dials on his scope. The wolf disappeared in a small coulee, giving me time to bound a few steps up the ridge to Matt’s elevation. As the wolf emerged back on to the snow field, I got a range of 730 yards. Still too far.
In another 300 yards, the wolf would be in a deep draw that would take him from our view and worse yet, intersect the game trail that led to the dark timber where we had lost the chance on another wolf only 20 minutes earlier. No way would we let that happen.
I ranged a small tree next to the trail I thought the wolf would take. The rangefinder showed 510 yards. I told Matt to get ready for 500 yards. He set the dial.
Twenty seconds later, the wolf slowed to a walk, as if contemplating its next change in course. It was now close to the scrubby pine at 510 yards, and only 30 yards from dropping out of our view.
Having no other option to stop it, we started yelling. No specific pattern to our shouts other than to get its attention before it vanished. It worked.
The wolf stopped, looked southwest to our position and revealed most of its right side to Matt’s crosshairs. At the shot, the wolf whirled, biting at whatever had just stung it.
In seconds, the wolf disappeared from view, though it seemed headed our way, using this deep ravine to hide from our position. It emerged from the coulee, running even closer to our position, before pausing at 265 yards. That is where the story ended.
A dream of our youth was now a reality. Matt and I looked at each other in disbelief, not really knowing how to react. We both realized this was not a fantasy. Excitement and celebration took over for the next few minutes until we were able to regain our composure. We walked down to give thanks to the wolf for all he had provided, all he represented, and all that had unfolded in the last month of chasing them.
As we walked up to the wolf, it was strange. Different than when I walked up to my first bull or buck. I’m not sure how to explain it. Exciting, fulfilling, but still different in some way. Not what I expected in my youthful dreams of wolf hunting.
Lying there was a wolf—an animal that needs elk as much as I need elk. An animal that by no choice of his own was caught in a crossfire of competing political interests.
Yes, its teeth were big and sharp. It smelled of a long-dead elk carcass. Its coat was dark black, with silver flanks. Beautiful. Its long legs ended in large pads that gave it great advantage in chasing hoofed meals in deep crusty snow. It was built to chase elk in the mountains more effectively than I ever could.
It did not seem like the evil, fairy tale figure responsible for the demise of western civilization, which one might conclude by listening to the barstool stories of wolf-haters. In a lot of ways, its life seemed not too different from mine. It was born a hunter. It spent its entire life learning prey and their habitats. It needs wild places, free of roads and development. So do I. It eats elk. So do I.
My respect had grown. My attitude had changed. Chasing wolves in these mountains can do that, even to the most serious elk hunter.
As a vocal critic of how the wolf delisting process occurred, I found myself examining my earlier ideas of what was fact and what was fiction. Eleven days of hunting wolves helped me gain some clarity.
I won’t attempt to deal with all the fiction that swirls around wolves. A few facts are worth stating. Wolves are here to stay. Wolves will be managed. Wolves are an amazing big game animal, providing challenge and intrigue. No matter how many or how few wolves exist, vocal fringes will complain.
Wolf hunting will be hard work, attracting a passionate cadre of fanatics—hardcore guys like lion houndsmen and bear hunters. How hard will it be to attract more to wolf hunting? Well, last year Montana sold more than 18,000 wolf tags resulting in less than 180 wolves killed. I don’t know how many of those folks actually got out and really hunted wolves, but the result was less than 1 percent success. That makes elk hunting look like a sure thing. Then again, this was only Montana’s second fair chase wolf hunt in history.
In a strange sort of way, I am happy to share the landscape with wolves, as long as hunters are part of the plan to manage them. I am thankful for the chance to hunt them and will do so at every opportunity.
I hope you do the same. All of us—hunters, elk and even wolves—will be better off if you do.
Randy Newberg is the host of On Your Own Adventures, a TV show about self-guided hunting on public lands, airing on the Sportsman Channel. He lives in Bozeman, Montana, and chases elk whenever and wherever the opportunity provides.