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Wild Lands, Wolves and Wapiti

by Corey Fisher, Montana Hunter

I didn’t grow up around wolves, or elk. I was raised in rural southern Michigan where the biggest wild canines were coyotes and the whitetail deer—while corn fed and fat—were nothing compared to elk. It was farm country and the big patches of timber were only 40 acres. A desire for open spaces and big country took me to college in northern Wisconsin, where the Chequamegon National Forest served as my introduction to our precious public lands heritage and also my first encounter with wolves.

While deer hunting the fall of my freshman year, I was watching the sunset and waited for a buck to come out of a cedar swamp when a sound from a couple ridges away sent shivers up my spine. These were not coyotes yapping as I was used to, but honest-to-God wolves howling through the cold November air. Walking out of the woods to my truck, I realized that I wasn’t alone at the top of the food chain in the Northwoods. I knew that there were a couple of packs in the region, but the actual confirmation that we were hunting in the same territory was thrilling. I’d come looking for big, wild country and I’d found it. Knowing that these animals were still here made me look at my new hunting area in a different way. This was a place that was whole—where the workings of nature still ticked. The fact that I, too, was part of it all was uplifting.

Later, I found myself lucky enough to be living and working in western Montana. Ever since my youth, spent chasing whitetails in woodlots, I’d wanted to hunt elk. The mystique of the backcountry and stories of wapiti that roamed the mountains beckoned me.

Searching the ample public lands in my new home, I focused on the Pintler and Sapphire Ranges as the place where I would hunt elk and fulfill a lifelong desire. I’d heard about the wolves in the region, and how they affected elk movement, but there seemed to be plenty of elk around so I hunted them…and hunted and hunted and hunted. Sure, I found elk, mostly flashes of tan crashing through dense stands of lodgepole as I spooked yet another herd. As the season wore down, I realized that hiking for miles on end wasn’t going to cut it: I had to slow down and work to get in close if I was going to kill an elk.

After making a personal pact to stop chasing elk as if it were some cross-country marathon, and actually start hunting, I found myself slowly stalking down a ridge on a snowy afternoon in late November. Elk sign was everywhere: droppings, tracks, beds. But the snow showed their age and I was there a day late; another hundred yards and the reason was clear. Several sets of wolf tracks criss-crossed the ridge and I knew that continuing to hunt here on this day was futile. That evening I scoured my map, trying to decide where I’d go if I was an elk being hunted by man and canine. I settled on a long ridge about three miles from where I’d been hunting and set the alarm clock early.

Not long into the new day, it was clear I’d made a good choice. As I eased through fresh snow along the edge of a burn, and cow and a calf materialized in front of me, casually walking within fifty yards before entering the timber. The whole time they were unaware of my presence and I gained a boost of confidence that it was possible to sneak close enough to an elk to make a good shot. I began to think that I had crossed some intangible threshold that signified my ability—worth perhaps—of the keen responsibility and honor that killing an elk demands. I was deep in elk country, meeting Wapiti on their terms and turf, passing the tests of hearing, sight, and smell…tests honed through the ancient dance of predator and prey.

Nearing the end of the day, I began to drop off down a finger ridge that I figured would lead me to a creek, then camp, a hot meal, and stories of the day's events with my hunting partners. But I still snuck my way along through the snow, pausing to scan ahead of me, and down into the draw below.

“There’s an elk.”

The matter-of-fact thought entered my brain shortly after my eyes saw a patch of tawny hide bedded in a tangle of deadfall one hundred yards below. Raising my binoculars, I could see that it was a bull and my legs started to shake. Easing into the prone position behind the trunk of a burnt lodgepole, I found the bull in my riflescope and confirmed that he had the required four-inch long brow times. Trying to settle the bucking crosshairs, I took a couple deep breaths, forcing myself to focus my excitement. The crosshairs came to rest solidly behind the bull’s shoulder and the shot echoed through the valley.

Since then, I have continued to hunt and kill elk in country where elk and hunters (of the two and four-legged variety) still match wits, and I like being part of it. There are a lot of places where a person can hunt knowing that they are undisputedly at the top of the food chain—most of Montana and nearly all of America. But there are precious few places where that role is shared and up for grabs.

In a polarized issue, I’m neither a wolf lover nor hater. In country big enough to support wolves, I think that they deserve a place out there. I’ve been lucky enough to tromp around in a few of those places with rifle in hand and the land feels different. It is whole, and we are lucky that we can still feel that special sense of bigness, that this world is a heck of a lot more than ourselves. It is spiritual. But that doesn’t mean that wolves should be everywhere or expand unchecked. The reality is that we are not living in the natural world through which Lewis and Clark traversed. Much of the West has been “tamed,” it isn’t wild, and wolves don’t belong in a chopped up, fenced, cut-over, urbanized landscape. It is cliché, but wolves are a symbol of wilderness, and they deserve those wild lands in which to be wolves. Moreover, we as humans deserve that wild country to find ourselves, test our mettle, and get back to what it means to be self-sufficient, if only for a long weekend.

Wolves. They stir up the emotion of what has been and what we hope our world to be. Folks need to work together from the baseline where we live now, the habitat we have left, our needs as a society, the values of intact ecosystems, and find balance between man and wolf. In short, this is wildlife management; it isn’t perfect, but we are fortunate enough to have the North American Model of Wildlife Management, where wildlife belongs to all, and is managed through hunting to try and achieve that balance given the constraints of our ecosystems and society. As with all animals with populations healthy enough to be hunted, wolves should be managed under this model based on population objectives, management goals, and the carrying capacity of habitat and society.

Dry, soulless terms those are: population objectives, management goals, carrying capacity…but we are not living in a natural Utopia. We can coexist with wolves on the landscape, and have great elk hunting too. But we need to be cognizant of where wolves deserve to roam, protect our remaining backcountry areas, and “manage” wolves dependant on the constraining variables we have created on the landscapes of the West.



Corey Fisher lives and works in western Montana, where spends his free time casting flies to trout and hunting about anything in season. He can be contacted at fisherwild@hotmail.com.

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