Winter landed hard in Montana last November, about the time we learned that a new wolf pack in the neighborhood had pushed the elk out of our honey hole. But we kept trying, my grandson and I. One more day of frozen eyeglasses and icicles in my beard, we decided, and we’d hunt someplace else.
The next day at dawn, we spotted two sets of elk tracks, hot ones, the first we’d seen since the snow had blanketed everything a few days earlier. We crept up the ridge, where I really thought we’d find elk grazing in the meadow. But all we got was track soup. And a story. Smooth and fresh as a clean sheet, the snow told a tale. The elk had come through before dawn, walking north in no particular hurry, facing the wind. Then they bolted south, fast. The snow told us why.
The elk had stumbled into five wolves, sleeping in the sparse sage. We saw the wolves’ icy beds, places where they had dug at the frozen ground, tussled and played, peed on the shrubbery, trampled the snow with their feet. The wolves hadn’t chased the elk but turned east instead. Maybe they’d been caught napping and saw the futility of pursuit or maybe they just weren’t hungry. But the elk weren’t sticking around to find out. As a hunt, it was a frustrating scene, but it was a pretty damned interesting morning, figuring out the story, drawn on a whiteboard bigger than a football field.
At the age of thirteen, my grandson Dylan is already a good hunter. He’s got the lungs and legs for it, and, more importantly, the tenacity and steady patience it takes. He’s already taken one elk and a couple deer and I expect he’ll get a lot more as the years unfold. He’ll make memories that will or won’t fade, but I think that morning’s story will stick. I know it will for me.
His story and mine have different roots.
I grew up hunting in Montana, but it wasn’t wolf country then and I’m still trying to wrap my head around the changes. The federal government brought wolves to Yellowstone National Park, about an hour’s drive from my home, in 1995. It was very controversial at the time. The federal government and environmental groups wanted to restore wolves to their natural role in the ecosystem, to bring back an animal that had been hunted and trapped and poisoned to extinction in that area decades earlier, and they had the law on their side. The wolf was protected by the Endangered Species Act and the courts ruled that reintroduction should proceed, despite the fears of some that cattle ranches and game herds would be wiped out. As the years passed, the wolves multiplied, traveled far from the park and established territories in places that hadn’t heard a wolf howl in generations, including our honey hole on a friend’s ranch, a place that has filled my freezer many times. One small pack had roamed the ranch for several years, but I never saw more than a track, and elk had remained plentiful there.
Today, Montana has hundreds of wolves. The government recently counted 536, though biologists stressed that is only a minimum estimate, that the number is at least 30 percent higher than that. And the population is holding pretty steady, even though we’ve had a hunting season on wolves for several years, ever since Congress stepped in and forced the removal of federal protections in 2011. The state of Montana immediately set up a hunting season for them.
I’m not interested in hunting anything I don’t care to eat, and I don’t care to eat a wolf so I don’t hunt them. Still, people value the beautiful pelts and plenty of folks relish the chance to shoot a wolf. For some, I think, it’s a chance to stick a thumb in the eye of the federal government they maintain has forced wolves upon the West.
I suspect that’s what happened to my honey hole; human resentment took over and stirred the pot. The ranch owner told me his neighbors had killed several of the wolves living in the area and a new pack had moved in to claim the old pack’s territory. In their attempts to figure out this new ground, these animals had chased the elk somewhere. The ranch owner – no big fan of wolves – wasn’t happy about this development. He figures he was better off with the wolves that knew his ranch and didn’t cause trouble than he was with new ones that had some exploring to do. I think he was right about that. The old pack knew how to take down a meal without chasing away the whole herd and closing down the store. The new pack flubbed it and likely will have some hungry days as a result.
As an apex predator, wolves change how ecosystems operate; how the elk and other prey species behave and where they spend time, which changes plant life, which effects streams and erosion patterns, and therefore fish and bugs and all sorts of things. Biologists call this a “trophic cascade” of consequences and people are still learning new things about how it all works. As a reporter, learning and writing about wolves was part of my job for many years and I enjoyed it a great deal. Now I’m learning how to hunt among them. It’s a new thing for me.
Dylan, on the other hand, has never lived in a world without wild wolves. He spends plenty of time on his cell phone and iPad, but he’s an active kid, a good athlete eager to go outside most of the time. Like most of his friends, all Montana kids, he’s an avid hunter and wolves are part of the only landscape he’s known, a place where I’m teaching him to harvest clean and natural food, from mushrooms to meat. These are things we could get much more easily at the supermarket, but we like doing it this way, because it’s not just about food.
For his generation, having wolves in the woods is just something that exists; like the rule that makes you take your shoes off at the airport, it’s always been that way for them. But he’s learning that wolves add complications to the hunting equation, and, as the biologists say, complexity is good, but not necessarily easy. It adds resilience and strength to a place. This is the world in which Dylan is learning to read tracks, to open his eyes and nose and ears all at the same time, to control his breathing and heartbeat. I’m glad he has the opportunity. He’s learning more and learning it faster than I did at his age.
The day after we found the wolf beds, we tried a different spot, not so far as the bird flies but with a lot of human boundaries in between, roads and fences and such. Those fences create yet another complication, one that Dylan is also learning. They generally indicate property boundaries. Some people will allow us to use their land and others won’t, as is their right, and we respect that. We found a couple hundred elk, but they were on the wrong side of the barbed wire so we started hiking away from them, to public land that is everyone’s property, hoping to find more elk. We found fresh tracks and beds, which was exciting, then a scrape tree, where a buck or bull had displayed his lust during the rut, mangling a scruffy lodgepole pine with his antlers, leaving his scent in the bark and probably getting some pine sap between his ears. And there, just above the scrape, we saw bear scratches, claw marks ripping the wood. Predator and prey marking the same spot.
And that made for a second interesting morning, even if we didn’t bag an elk.
Just over a small hill, we could see Livingston, the town where I grew up and where I live now. We could hear trains and traffic on the highway. Somewhere between us and town was a herd of elk, inaccessible because of the fences and the human decisions they indicated. In this case, wolves had nothing to do with putting our prey out of reach.
When I was my grandson’s age, still too young to drive, my friends and I would walk to this area from town, pitch a tent, cook some beans and fantasize about the animals we would kill, come the season. The man whose land we crossed didn’t care about our wanderings, as long as we didn’t set the place on fire or harass his cattle, but I don’t remember ever seeing an elk there in those days. Nowadays, if I set up a spotting scope on the deck of my house, I can sometimes see hundreds of them from town. But I generally can’t hunt them, because new people own the land and they’ve made it clear that I’m not welcome. For Dylan, walking from town and going where his nose leads him really isn’t an option, unless he wants to risk being arrested for trespassing. That freedom doesn’t exist for him.
Twenty-first century Montana is a wildlife-dense environment, including predators. Black bears and grizzlies, wolves and coyotes, mountain lions and bobcats, all make a living on the land, often by killing something. They all owe something to hunters, who financed countless conservation projects over the past century, improving habitat with their license fees and the taxes they pay on equipment and ammunition. We have more predators now partly because we have more prey animals.
Still, human hunters outnumber other predator species, all of which want wild meat, but for the humans, the meat is not a physical need. It’s important to us, but we won’t starve without it. And the nonhuman predators have at least one advantage: they don’t have to pay attention to fences.
The state abounds in prey, despite all the teeth and bullets out there. When the wolves were reintroduced, the silliest of the critics predicted canis lupus would create an ecological desert, basically wiping out everything from moose to moles. Quite the opposite happened. Montana has more elk in more places than it’s had in a century thanks in part to hunters, the habitat they protected and the biologists and game wardens they hired with their license money. But that doesn’t mean it’s any easier to hunt elk, mostly because of all those fences and the “no trespassing” signs they carry.
That’s why I worry about the current movement to privatize the public lands across the West, places like the National Forest land where we found that scrape tree. People such as the Bundy family famously puff up their chests for the cameras and stage armed standoffs in Oregon and Nevada, but their fellow travelers in state capitols and Washington distress me more. They’re trying to force the federal government to get rid of public land, to turn it over to corporations and individuals, so people can make money from it and shut us all out. If private landowners lock their gates, I’ll accept it without much surprise simply because I’ve seen it happen too often. But I’ll do everything I can to keep that from happening to public land, property that belongs to you and me. And to my grandson and yours, whether you hunt or you just want to go look at a scrape tree.
For hunters, wolves have changed things, but not as much as people have, especially the ones who lock the public’s wildlife away from the public. As in most of the West, Montana is seeing big social changes and people are cordoning off more and more land. Sometimes it’s because they don’t like hunting. Sometimes it’s because they want to make money through selling guided hunts. Sometimes they just want their privacy. It can be frustrating when wolves chase the elk to the wrong side of the fence, but I believe the wolves have as much right to elk meat as I do and the elk will return to our honey hole sooner or later. I just have to work a little harder now and that probably won’t hurt me a bit. Dylan understands the work. For him, it’s always been that way. And the “no trespassing” signs have always been there as well. They’re a lot more common than wolves are, and they scare me more. That’s why we need to keep our public lands in public hands.
Plus, the wolves wrote out that story in the snow. They gave that story to my grandson. And they gave it to me. It will last a lot longer than an elk steak and if we hadn’t all been hunting the same ground that day, how could we have learned to read it?
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Scott McMillion edits and publishes the literary magazine Montana Quarterly. He also has edited the new book, Montana, Warts and All, a collection of the best writing from the magazine’s first decade. His book, Mark of the Grizzly: True Stories of Recent Grizzly Bear Attacks and the Hard Lessons Learned, is now in its fifteenth printing. He lives in Livingston, Montana.