For hunters, wolves have changed things, but not as much as people have, especially the ones who lock the publics 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 its because they dont like hunting. Sometimes its 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 wont hurt me a bit.
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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 writing has more elk in more places than its 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 doesnt mean its any easier to hunt elk, mostly because failed of all those fences and the no trespassing signs they carry. Thats 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. Theyre 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, Ill accept it without much surprise simply because ive seen it happen too often. But Ill do everything I can to keep that from happening to public land, property that belongs to you and. And to my grandson and yours, whether you hunt or you just want to go look at a scrape tree.
Black bears and grizzlies, wolves and coyotes, mountain lions and bobcats, all make a living on the shredder 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. Its important to us, but we wont starve without. And the nonhuman predators have at least one advantage: they dont have to pay attention to fences. The state abounds in prey, despite all the teeth and bullets out there.
When I was my grandsons 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 didnt care about our wanderings, as long as we didnt set the place on fire or harass his cattle, but I dont remember ever seeing presentation 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 cant hunt them, because new people own the land and theyve made it clear that Im not welcome. For Dylan, walking from town and going where his nose leads him really isnt an option, unless he wants to risk being arrested for trespassing. That freedom doesnt exist for him. Twenty-first century montana is a wildlife-dense environment, including predators.
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 everyones 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. 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 didnt 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.
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Like most of his friends, all Montana kids, hes an avid hunter and wolves are part of the only landscape hes known, a place where Im 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 its 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, its always been that way for them. But hes learning that wolves add complications hrm 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. Im glad he has the opportunity.
Hes writing 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 wont, as is their right, and we respect that.
The ranch owner no big fan of wolves wasnt happy about this development. He figures he was better off with the wolves that knew his ranch and didnt cause trouble than he was with new ones that had some exploring. 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 Im learning how to hunt among them. Its a new thing for. 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 hes an active kid, a good athlete eager to go outside most of the time.
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And the population is holding pretty steady, even though weve 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. Im not interested in hunting anything I dont care to eat, and I dont care to eat a wolf paper so i dont hunt them. Still, people value the beautiful pelts and plenty of folks relish the chance to shoot a wolf. For some, i think, its a chance to stick a thumb in the eye of the federal government they maintain has forced wolves upon the west. I suspect thats 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 packs territory. In their attempts reviews to figure out this new ground, these animals had chased the elk somewhere.
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 writing 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 hadnt heard a wolf howl in generations, including our honey hole on a friends 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.
age of thirteen, my grandson Dylan is already a good hunter. Hes got the lungs and legs for it, and, more importantly, the tenacity and steady patience it takes. Hes already taken one elk and a couple deer and i expect hell get a lot more as the years unfold. Hell make memories that will or wont fade, but I think that mornings story will stick. I know it will for. His story and mine have different roots. I grew up hunting in Montana, but it wasnt wolf country then and Im still trying to wrap my head around the changes. The federal government brought wolves to yellowstone national Park, about an hours drive from my home, in 1995.
The elk had come through before dawn, walking professional 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 hadnt chased the elk but turned east instead. Maybe theyd been caught napping and saw the futility of pursuit or maybe they just werent hungry.
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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 business hole. But we kept trying, my grandson and. One more day of frozen eyeglasses and icicles in my beard, we decided, and wed hunt someplace else. The next day at dawn, we spotted two sets of elk tracks, hot ones, the first wed seen since the snow had blanketed everything a few days earlier. We crept up the ridge, where i really thought wed find elk grazing in the meadow. But all we got was track soup. Smooth and fresh as a clean sheet, the snow told a tale.