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MARION – Terry L. Zink has been a houndsman for over 30 years and an avid outdoorsman his entire life. With the help of his well-trained dogs, Zink has caught more mountain lions than he can remember – over 150 with just one favorite hound.
Behind his family’s home on a 4-acre plot of rural land, Zink keeps his seven hounds. They each have their own doghouse with their names brandished across the front, like “Beauty,” “Kitty” and “Newt.” They eat about 100 pounds of food a week and Zink pays his 7-year-old son Dylan an allowance to keep them fed.
Dylan has his favorite dog and so does Zink’s 5-year-old daughter, Katie. Judging by the hounds’ incessant licking of the two children whenever they’re nearby, it’s clear the love goes both ways.
“The dogs are a part of our family and they always have been,” Zink, who turns 46 soon, said from inside his home recently.
Northwest Montana likely has more houndsmen than anywhere else in the state, according to a local Fish, Wildlife and Parks official. Zink said there are at least 50 to 60 in Region 1.
This year mountain lions can be hunted with hounds in Montana from Dec. 2 to April 14, while the bobcat season is shorter. December and January are usually the prime time for mountain lion hunting. Months of training and waiting culminate as Zink and others can finally let their dogs off the leash and follow them into the mountains for a chase.
But enthusiasm is waning these days, Zink said. Houndsmen are more worried than eager to unleash their dogs in search of a tomcat. They have another predator on their minds.
“The wolf is putting our lifestyle at an awful risk,” Zink said. “As far as the houndsmen and outdoorsmen in general right now, we’re having a hard time with the wolf.”
In almost all hunting circles around the Northwest, the wolf has become a target of scorn. In Zink’s words, wolf packs are sweeping the region and decimating big game herds, pushing other predators like mountain lions and bears out of their habitats and in turn threatening a way of life for outsdoorsmen.
“The wolf is the most capable predator in North America,” Zink said. “They’re the top of the food chain, over the bears, over everything else. Over us.”
“(Wolves) will go in and kill, kill, kill until there’s nothing left,” he added. “People just do not get it. But as hunters and people who live here, we do.”
In the houndsmen community specifically, wolves are killing dogs more than ever, Zink said. He has not lost a dog but said that’s because he won’t let them out of his sight for very long anymore. As a member of the Montana State Houndsmen Association, he hears the horror stories. He knows fellow hunters who have lost dogs. He estimates more than 100 hounds have been killed in recent years in the northwest regions of Idaho and Montana.
“The last five years it’s gotten bad,” he said. “Every time we go out we’re running the risk of not coming home with our hounds. It pisses me off.”
If there has been a more contentious subject in wildlife management than wolves, it would be hard to put a finger on it. In the last decade the animal has led to a vexing debate between hunters, advocates and wildlife officials.
Advocates from WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit organization that has previously tried stopping the wolf hunt through litigation, testified before a U.S. House of Representatives natural resources oversight committee on Dec. 6. The group said “the protection of both charismatic animals and other lesser-known species, once deemed valueless, is necessary if we are to succeed in protecting not only the species we find charismatic, but also the ecosystems on which they, and ultimately we, depend.”
Locally, FWP is faced with trying to maintain a semblance of balance in the outdoors, and that can be divisive, according to a longtime FWP official.
“One of the most difficult things we do as wildlife biologists and managers is to manage predator and prey at the same time to the satisfaction of everyone,” Region 1 Wildlife Program Manager Jim Williams said. “It’s a very difficult prospect from the onset.”
FWP last month reported one of the worst hunting seasons in recent history for both harvest and hunter numbers. Exactly how much of that relates to wolves is uncertain.
But there’s no uncertainty in Zink’s mind.
“We’ve got to get the public to understand, sooner or later we’re not going to have the deer and the elk anymore,” he said.
There were 1,651 wolves in the Northern Rockies at the end of 2010, according to FWP. Within Montana, the population has grown from roughly 100 in 2000 to almost 600 in 2010. Northwest Montana is home to the majority of the state’s wolves.
As of Dec. 18, 110 wolves have been reported as harvested in the state during the current wolf hunting season, which was recently extended almost two months to Feb. 15. The region in and around Kalispell was one of the first where the quota was filled and hunting was closed. The quota was 12. FWP is currently tracking 45 wolf packs in Region 1.
Mac Minard, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, works with 230 businesses across the state. He said last hunting season was “strange,” according to what outfitters told him. The general success was noticeably down for almost everyone and big game behavioral patterns were different than normal, he said.
How much of that relates to wolves?
“It is a reality and it’s changing the way people are hunting and have to hunt,” he said.
Minard, who monitored wolves as a Fish and Game official in Alaska before moving to Montana, said the current hunting system will not sufficiently manage wolf numbers. The animal is too evasive for the average hunter. He supports an increase in wolf licenses as well as expanded regulations, perhaps trapping or electronic call signs, for example.
“I’m not a wolf hater. In fact, all I’m suggesting is that we can offer additional hunting and trapping opportunities within the sustainable biological surplus that’s there,” he said. “There are quite a few things we could do to manage their numbers but keep them within the threshold so they’re not relisted.”
Zink opposes the current wolf management system, which is why he won’t buy a hunting permit. He believes wolves should be classified the same as coyotes, meaning they would not be regulated by state or federal agencies and could be shot year-round.
Otherwise, “we’re going to lose our way of life,” he said. “In some spots we already have.”
Unlike some hunters who cherish the harvest, Zink cherishes the sport. Mountain lion hunting, for the most part, is “catch and release.” Only a few harvest permits exist for mountain lions in this part of the state through a lottery. It’s been years since Zink or anyone in his family won one. Instead, Zink and other houndsmen enjoy the sport by purchasing licenses to chase and tree lions, and then move on to the next pursuit. Some states other than Montana allow black bear hunting, too.
“I measure a good hunt by having fun with good people, not by the animals harvested,” he said. “That’s not what’s important to me. It’s more important for me to get out with my friends and family.”
Zink and Williams have been friends for years. It can be a factious friendship at times for the hunter and wildlife manager. But they both remain respectful of each other.
“We’ll disagree sometimes on resource issues but he has a lot of integrity and he’s very passionate about hounds and lions,” Williams said. “Those hounds, not only do they represent a significant investment in time and money, they’re also family members.”
The threat to Zink’s hounds and livelihood is what frustrates him. The predators are winning, he says, and that doesn’t sit well. He wants his younger son and daughter to have the same memories of the outdoors he had. And for Zink, being out in the wild represents both a sanctuary and a lifestyle.
“I do my praying in the woods,” he said. “When you take into account that that’s jeopardized, it really hurts you inside. It hurts your heart. That’s why I’m very passionate about it.”
FWP is holding a public meeting on tentative hunting regulations for big game at the Red Lion Hotel in Kalispell starting at 9 a.m. on Jan. 7.
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