Two men from the Flathead Valley say a pack of wolves surrounded them on Oct. 30 while they were attempting to retrieve an elk one had shot the day before. The encounter ended with shots fired at the pack and one wolf dead.
The hunter contacted Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks on Nov. 1, and took a game warden back to the site. The warden confirmed through tracks in the snow that there had been a pack of wolves present, and wolves and a grizzly bear had fed on the elk.
Since wolves are classified as an endangered species, FWP turned the information and the investigation over to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent, according to John Fraley, spokesman for FWP Region 1.
Former county commissioner Gary Hall called a press conference Nov. 4 for the hunters and others who advocate returning wolf management to the state.
“The wolf population is out of hand,” Hall said.
On Oct. 30, Whitefish resident Raymond Pitman, 27, went to help his friend, 49-year-old Mark Appleby of Columbia Falls, retrieve the body of the six-point elk Appleby shot the day before in a drainage of the South Fork of the Flathead River.
The hunters brought horses with them to pack out the meat, Pitman wrote in his statement to FWP, and had an eye out for predators who may have been drawn in by the quartered elk, but saw no sign of any threats.
Reaching the elk after two hours, the men took a lunch break for about 30 to 40 minutes, Pitman wrote, and pulled the horses closer to the meat. But the horses began “stirring violently,” Pitman wrote, and it was then that Appleby warned him of the six or seven wolves bearing down on them in a silent run.
Pitman told FWP that he fired his .44-caliber sidearm in the wolves’ direction, but that only made them pause. Appleby wrote in his voluntary statement that he ran to get his rifle when he spotted the wolves.
“I pointed my gun at them at about the same time they started to run at us again,” Appleby wrote. “At that time I feared for my life and the horses and my friend and started to shoot.”
Appleby was intent on getting the rest of his meat out – the quarters, tenderloin and backstrap – but feared the horses were at risk as soon as the wolves started howling and circling.
“I wanted to get my meat out,” Appleby said at the press conference. “The stupid things kept howling. It was freaky.”
The horses started leading the men away from the scene, and Appleby wrote that they got about 50 to 75 yards down the road when they realized the wolves were tracking them.
Pitman continued to fire into the trees, and the men eventually worked the horses out of the forest, Appleby wrote.
Without the horses warning them and without the pistol, Appleby said he was sure one of them would have been attacked.
Pitman told reporters that he has encountered wolves before, but it has usually been a solitary creature at a time.
“One wolf, no big deal,” Pitman said. “Six or seven – what do you do?”
Both men concluded there are too many wolves in the forests, a sentiment echoed by state Sen. Bruce Tutvedt during the press conference.
Tutvedt said he hoped congress would pass U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg’s bill aimed at removing wolves from the Endangered Species Act. The wolves would go back under state management and Montanans would have the capability to hunt and harvest them, Tutvedt said.
Both Pitman and Appleby expressed concern for people who go into the woods unarmed. Appleby said he is worried his horses won’t be able to go into the forest without getting spooked and Pitman said he wouldn’t go unarmed while in the woods again.
“God saved us this time, but those wolves are still out there,” Pitman wrote in his statement. “I won’t go in these woods without a sidearm ever again. Those wolves were not afraid of us at all.”
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