The uncertainty over whether wolf-hunting season is going to open at all on Sept. 15 didn’t stop a steady stream of Montanans from purchasing licenses across the state last week. Some 2,600 people purchased licenses the first day they were available.
That number dropped off considerably in the following days, but officials with the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks believe that is likely because many hunters were simply biding their time, waiting to hear if a federal judge in Missoula would file an injunction halting the wolf harvest. Conservationists and animal welfare groups have argued that the wolf population in the Northern Rockies, estimated at about 1,650, is not yet strong enough to be hunted.
But that is a view not shared – unsurprisingly – by the several hundred Flathead residents who filed into the FWP office in Kalispell to pull their license. On a recent afternoon the phone rang almost constantly with callers inquiring as to whether the judge had halted the hunt.
“I’m going to go home and put this behind glass,” Ted Dykstra, Jr., joked with FWP’s Kristy Personett as she slid his $19-resident wolf license across the counter. (Non-resident licenses are $350.)
Dykstra said he was skeptical wolf hunting season would be a long-lived phenomenon in Montana, and thinks it will eventually go the way of bison hunting season.
“If the season closes and I haven’t gotten anything, I’m definitely going to have it framed,” he said of his license, “because I don’t think there will be another one.”
The wolf quota across the state is 75, a number John Fraley, spokesman for FWP’s Region One, calls “conservative,” estimating it amounts to roughly 15 percent of the Montana wolf population believed to be at around 500. In Wolf Management Unit 1, which stretches across the top of the state from Lincoln to Sheridan counties, the quota is 41.
“When that quota is reached, within 24 hours, we close the season,” Fraley said.
Dykstra and his father were planning on heading somewhere west of Kalispell, and would be looking specifically for wolves. He thinks the harvest quota is low enough so as not to have much of an effect on the wolf population, but he said hunters out looking for wolves are likely to drive the packs further up into the mountains, away from populated areas and livestock.
“I just hope it’s a successful harvest so the government officials decide to keep doing it,” Dykstra said.
Chris Hackworthy, a hunter from Proctor who stopped in on the same day, planned to buy a wolf license, but bagging one wasn’t his main goal.
“When I’m hunting elk and I see wolves, that gives me an opportunity to take out a wolf and continue elk hunting,” Hackworthy said. “I’m not necessarily going to spend a whole lot of money and distance to go get a wolf.”
For 25 years, Hackworthy and nine friends have traveled to their favorite hunting spot in the Big Hole area looking for elk. But in recent years, he said, they’ve brought back fewer and fewer, while seeing more and more wolves. Two years ago, he saw no elk during his hunting – only wolves. That same trip, out of the 10 hunters, only one got an elk, which is why Hackworthy hopes the wolf hunt will help revive Montana’s elk population and force wolves to be more wary of humans.
“They’re not scared of us,” he said. “Without a hunt, it’s a matter of time before you’ll see some mishaps with human encounters.”
Some hunters Hackworthy knows plan to use elk calls to lure the wolves, and like Dykstra, he found the quota to be low.
“Everybody I hunt with and everybody I know wants to kill wolves, wants them eradicated,” he said. “I think they should up the quota and nail them hard and early right off the bat.”
Brad Borden of Kalispell traveled down to Missoula to watch the hearing, and said he was impressed by the attorney arguing against allowing the wolf hunts. It didn’t increase Borden’s confidence that the season will open, but he bought his license anyway. He plans on heading down to the Thompson Drainage-Pleasant Valley area and hopes to be able to get a shot off at a wolf at dawn, using a predator call, with the .300-caliber Winchester rifle he was assembling last week.
Borden is also skeptical the hunt will have much impact on the wolf population, not because the quota numbers are so low, but because wolves are so smart and difficult to hunt.
“They make a coyote look pretty slow,” Borden, a former bow-hunting instructor, said. “It’s going to be tough.”
“If they kill eight wolves I’ll be shocked,” he added. “Once you shoot at them, you’ll never shoot at them again.”
But whether hunters are successful or not, Borden thinks the wolf season is a good idea. Allowing wildlife populations to develop unchecked wouldn’t necessarily demonstrate a return to a previous ecosystem balance, he said, adding that humans have already meddled too much, and management, at this point, is necessary.
“Man’s already stepped into that so far that we have to control it,” Borden said. “This is a start.”
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