Leaving camp in the middle of the night, Robert Millage put his SUV in low gear and crept up the jeep road that follows the Nez Perce Trail in Idaho’s Clearwater National Forest. Stopping a few minutes later, he listened out the open window. Then he turned the engine off and uncased his rifle. He switched the red LED light on in his headlamp and began to climb down a steep mountainside, following the echoes of howling wolves
History had been penned in this country in the journals of Lewis and Clark, who followed the Nez Perce Trail in their quest for the Northwest Passage during the autumn of 1805. It was among these steeply folded ridges–described by expedition sergeant Patrick Gass as the “most terrible mountains I ever beheld”–that the Corps of Discovery almost perished from hypothermia and were reduced to eating their horses.
Now, on a Labor Day morning, Sept. 1, 2009, history was being written once again. This was opening day of Idaho’s wolf hunting season, the first state-sanctioned hunt for wolves as a big-game species in the lower 48 states. Millage, a 34-year-old real estate salesman from Kamiah, had bought a tag the day licenses went on sale. “I felt it was my duty to help predator control,” he says of his decision to hunt wolves. When he sat down behind a fallen aspen in a rockslide, the tag was in his backpack. His Tikka .243 rested across his knees.
Only hours before, Millage wasn’t sure he’d be hunting at all. Environmental groups had brought suit to block the proposed wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana. Millage had spent the eve of opening day in his office at Idaho Land and Home, checking websites for news. When the U.S. judge reviewing the case declined to file an injunction, Millage had driven directly from work up Old Forest Service Road 500, which twisted back and forth to follow the route the Nez Perce had used to access the vast bison herds to the east. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, the road had been little improved. The rocky three-hour drive passed through country where Millage saw not a solitary soul.
Before wolves were reintroduced into central Idaho, this stretch of road, on the evening prior to the opening of the archery elk season, would have been clouded with campfire smoke. But in recent years, Millage had seen fewer and fewer camps as the wolf population grew and the elk herd began to shrink. The behavior of elk that remained had changed drastically. Millage had guided for an outfitter here the prior September but had failed to put a hunter on a single bull. Wolf tracks had peppered the dust of the trails. The few elk Millage had heard were bugling in the cliffs where no man could follow.
As he drove toward his hunting grounds, Millage heard no elk. But the wolves weren’t so bashful. Millage was listening to Johnny Cash sing “Sunday Morning Coming Down” when the chorus from the car speakers was joined by a wolf pack, their howls floating out of a basin to the north. He turned the vehicle around and idled back down the hill to a level place off the road. Camp was a hastily erected pup tent. Dinner was forgotten.
But then, so too were his troubles.
The past few years, Millage’s life had read like the lyrics of the country songs he listened to. At 25, working for Amazon.com in Seattle, a small-town boy in the big city, Millage thought he had it made. Then the Internet bubble burst. He saw a quarter-million dollars in stock options evaporate overnight. Lost his job. Went backpacking to reclaim his “center.” He hiked out of the Cascade Mountains 30 days later and as many pounds lighter, certain of one thing: that he needed to return to his roots. Back in Idaho, he bought an electronics store in Kamiah, a few blocks from his boyhood home. When the economy tanked, he lost it. And found himself in a failing marriage, at the same time he was trying to keep a roof over his head by selling real estate in a down market.
The ink was not yet dry on the divorce papers when he climbed out of the tent at 3 a.m. and motored back up the hill. But he had custody of his two boys, had “clawed my way out the other side” as he puts it, and in the outdoors had found the “center” he’d been searching for. The place where Millage had heard the wolves was known as Spirit Revival Ridge, a vantage point on the watershed between the North Fork of the Clearwater and the Lochsa Rivers. When Millage reached the ridge, he stopped his rig and listened. There were the wolves, howling from the same basin as yesterday evening.
The excitement he felt turned to unease after he hiked a few hundred yards down the mountainside.
“When you’re alone in the dark and hear wolves howling,” he recalls, “you get a little unnerved.”
Millage carried a .357 magnum on his belt and brought the holster to cross draw position when he heard brush popping. But he was not overly afraid. Millage admired wolves and generally enjoyed their company. In whitetail deer camp, a wolf pack would hang back beyond the firelight; Millage often found himself singing back and forth with them, laments that amused or terrified guests. Last November, two hunters at his camp had been reluctant to climb out of their tents the morning following a particularly boisterous songfest. Millage had found them zipped snug in their sleeping bags, rifles at their sides.
As he waited, Millage made a recording of the wolves’ howls with his digital camera. He watched the tracers from shooting stars paint streaks of silver in the sky. Finally, the horizon began to pale.
For weeks, he’d been mastering kiyi yelping on a coyote distress call. To him it sounded like a dog with its tail caught in a car door. He called. The basin fell silent.
Millage had picked his ambush site with the expectation that the wolves would approach with noses into the wind. Earlier, he had sprayed coyote urine from an atomizer onto his clothes as a cover scent. But in the tense silence, he began to suspect that he’d sounded a false note and frightened the wolves away. Minutes later, he again heard howling. Millage, who is partially color-blind, strained his eyes for movement or an outline in the light that bathed the rockslide. Then, directly below him, a wolf trotted into view from the wall of timber. It stopped 30 yards away. Millage had the crosshairs of his scope behind the wolf’s shoulder as it lifted its nose.
“She got a look on her face as if she knew she’d been busted,” he recalls. As the wolf turned to leave, the rifle fired; Millage was barely aware he was pressing the trigger. The wolf whipped its head around to snap at its shoulder. It bit at its shoulder a second time, then abruptly fell over. After that, it never moved.
Millage walked down to the wolf, a female with a light tan coat and grizzled tones along her back. He felt adrenaline coursing through his body, but his excitement was tempered by a measure of remorse–the mixed-up emotions he experienced with every game animal he shot.
“You have to be a hunter to know how I felt,” he says.
As Millage set the timer on his camera to take photos, he heard brush rustling. He yelled and threw rocks to let the wolves know where he was. The pack howled. It was unsettling. Millage drew his knife and bent to skin the wolf, leaving the paws and head attached for the taxidermist to flesh out later. He strapped the rolled-up hide to the bottom of his pack and began to climb. The wolves were still howling when he reached the road.
Though the morning was barely an hour old, already it was warm. To keep the skin from being ruined, Millage cranked up the air conditioning in his rig. He began the long drive down to the valley floor with the wolf’s musty smell in his nostrils.
The Outfitter: Panic
Along the old road that Millage drove, there is a hand-painted sign picturing an elk, a human hunter, and a dog. The sign, posted by Mike Popp where his property abuts the Clearwater National Forest, reads: Now do you know what the endangered species are? For 26 years, Popp guided elk hunters in Idaho’s Lolo Zone along the Lochsa River, country that once offered the best public-land elk hunting in the West. Today, with wolves blamed by biologists for a precipitous decline in the elk herds, Popp says he can no longer in good conscience advertise hunts for trophy bulls and has even given up hunting elk himself. Though he heartily congratulated Millage on his kill–Popp’s place was Millage’s first stop after his hunt–he scoffs at the notion that the state hunt will remove enough wolves to give elk breathing room to recover.
“This is the biggest wildlife disaster since the mass destruction of the bison on the plains,” he states.
Some 2,600 miles to the east, flashing from a skyscraper on 42nd Street in New York’s Times Square, is another sign. The video screen shows a 15-second clip of a wolf pup in long grass. It reads: They are being killed. The ad space was rented by Defenders of Wildlife, which is using revenue solicited by the sign to fund lawsuits alleging that wolf hunting threatens the species’ recovery.
Two messages, representing extreme opinions about an animal that is alternately reviled and worshipped around the world, and that had been all but eradicated in the Lower 48 before federal reintroduction 15 years ago in Yellowstone National Park and Idaho.
What is the real story behind the pictures? Will hunting set back wolf recovery? Or have wolf numbers already reached a saturation level where they need to be managed if game populations–elk, and in some places whitetail and mule deer–are to survive?
As far as hunters are concerned, the debate has always centered more upon the prey than the predator. Elk hunters in particular were highly vocal in the fight to instate wolves as a big-game animal in Idaho and Montana. (Wyoming was denied a 2009 sport hunting season because its wolf management plan did not meet federal recovery goals.) But will selling wolf tags be enough to save the heritage they feel is in peril?
Although wolf proponents argue that recovery is insufficient to justify delisting, federal recovery goals, listed as 10 breeding pairs and 100 wolves for three consecutive years in each of three states–Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming–were documented as far back as 2002. Delisting efforts were suspended, however, because Wyoming could not come up with a plan to meet the goals, and lawsuits further delayed the process. By the time wolves were formally removed from the endangered species list last May, Ed Bangs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who spearheaded the $30 million reintroduction program, had used aerial survey and radio-collar data to estimate the total population at 1,650 wolves, living in about 220 packs throughout the recovery area.
How will hunting affect this population?
The short answer is, it won’t. Montana’s 2009 quota of 75 targeted 15 percent of 500 wolves. Idaho’s quota, 220, targeted nearly 26 percent of 850 wolves. In addition, the predator-control program conducted by Wildlife Services (under the USDA), acting on state recommendations to eliminate wolves that are killing livestock, reduces wolf populations by around 20 percent annually. That brings the total harvest in Montana to 35 percent; 46 percent in Idaho. Studies suggest that wolves can withstand a 30 percent annual mortality rate through hunting before populations begin to trend down. Factor in those wolves taken by predator control, and it would seem that reducing or at least checking wolf populations is possible. This equation, however, doesn’t take into account that wolves have been increasing at an accelerated rate–between 20 and 24 percent annually–as they expand into new territories. And there is no guarantee that hunters will meet state quotas. On the inaugural hunt, Montana hunters reached theirs by mid November, but the wolves had been shielded by the Endangered Species Act and were caught off guard. It is far from a certainty that future hunts will see tags filled at similar rates, especially in light of the fact that game managers expect three-quarters of the harvest will be incidental–wolves shot by elk and deer hunters who happen upon them, rather than by hunters who specifically target wolves. Hunting has proved hardest in Idaho’s backcountry wolf districts, where hunters have fallen short of filling the quota, despite a three-month extension of the season that was originally slated to close at the end of the year. Not incidentally, these areas include ranges where elk herds have been hit hardest by wolves.
Politics also play a part in wolf management. Justin Goodie, chief of research and technical services for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, conducted simulation studies on wolf populations that led him to conclude that current population numbers could be maintained even if sport hunters shot nearly a third of the wolves. “Then we cut that figure in half,” he says, to establish the 2009 quota. With lawsuits pending, he explains, the future of sport hunting depends on the states’ being able to prove that wolves will continue to flourish even when hunted.
“We expect to see an increase in wolves next year,” he says.
The Hunter: Media Frenzy & An Omen
When Robert Millage walked through the doors of the regional office of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in Lewiston, it was a little past 1 p.m.
“I want to report a wolf kill,” he told the woman behind the reception desk.
She looked shocked, Millage remembers.
“Really?” the woman said.
Soon, most of the people in the offices had emptied out to see the wolf. Millage’s license was checked. A game officer asked Millage if it was O.K. to call the Lewiston Morning Tribune. Within a few minutes, Millage had talked to a reporter from the paper and was being hooked up with a microphone to speak to KLEW, the local TV station.
He felt self-conscious being interviewed with his hair disheveled and blood and urine on his clothes. Later he’d come to regret a comment to the effect that he was “trying to beat his buddies to the punch” by shooting the first wolf in the region. He enjoyed a healthy competition with his hunting friends, but only in the sense that it made him hunt harder. He says he didn’t mean it to come across as disrespect for the wolf.
Millage didn’t understand the ramifications of his hunt, even when an Associated Press reporter called his cellphone asking for permission to reprint two photos that the Tribune had already posted on its website. Only after he had dropped the skin off with a taxidermist and started the hour-plus drive back to Kamiah did what lay in store for him become clear. His phone was ringing as he drove into cell range near Orofino.
“You f‑‑‑ing fat redneck!” a woman screamed into the phone. It was f-this and f-that, Millage recalls. She told him he was going to go to hell for shooting the wolf. Millage kept his voice calm, replied that he’d been brought up to believe that it was people who used language like hers who were more likely to go to hell. The woman hung up.
There is no reasonable way of talking with people like that, Millage thought. But the caller’s words would prove prophetic. As the first hunter to legally shoot a wolf since its removal from the endangered species list, Millage was about to go through hell on earth, if not in the Hereafter.
The Biologist: Frustration
The controversy surrounding wolves and elk has placed a target on game biologists, who face the daunting task of trying to satisfy hunters’ wishes to have elk for the freezer at the same time another predator is insisting on its place at the dinner table. At the center of the debate is Montana Region 3 biologist Julie Cunningham, co-author with Ken Hamlin of a 2009 report on wolf-ungulate interactions and population trends in Montana. This 95-page document (available at fwp.mt.gov/wildthings/wolf/game.html) also looks at the effects other predators have upon elk, including hunters. It is a landmark study and one everyone should read before crying wolf, for it reveals that the decline of an elk herd–in areas where habitat and weather are not factors–usually results from a high predator-to-prey ratio of which wolves are only one component, along with mountain lions and bears, which take heavy toll of elk calves. In places of low predator densities, elk herds have remained healthy and hunting harvests stable, even after wolves were added to the mix. But where predator densities are already high, the addition of wolves can be the tipping point that causes a precipitous decline in the herd and loss of hunting opportunities.
When I called to see Cunningham at Fish, Wildlife and Parks headquarters in Bozeman, she was preparing a proposal to close all elk hunting in District 310 during the 2010 season. The dire situation of the herd would send shock waves throughout the hunting community. This region to the north and west of Yellowstone Park embraces what’s been called the finest elk habitat in the world. For 60 years, this herd has wavered within 20 percentage points of 1,500 elk. Since 2006, it has declined at a rate of 30 percent a year, despite the closure of a late-season cow elk hunt. Last year, only 240 elk were counted on the winter range.
“What we’re looking at are predator densities that are uncharted,” Cunningham asserts. Three times as many grizzly bears roam the area compared with 20 years ago, while wolf numbers have climbed from six to 16, lifting the wolf-to-elk ratio well above 10 to 1,000–a figure Cunningham says is the threshold level for maintaining a healthy herd. Those 16 wolves are expected to eat no fewer than 107 elk between Nov. 1 and April 30; hunters during the fall season shot 43. The switch, from hunters’ tagging most of the game to wolves’ claiming the lion’s share, also has occurred in other areas.
At a public meeting in December on Cunningham’s proposal, so many hunters showed up that the venue had to be changed from a meeting room to an uninsulated barn where the department hangs confiscated game animals. Biologist Kurt Alt climbed a stepladder so he could be seen by a throng of more than 100 hunters, who were so disgruntled that they paid scant attention to the elk carcass suspended from a rafter, nor the cougar lying dead on the floor. “If you don’t deal with the wolves there, we’re not going to have an elk herd. You’ve got to deal with the wolves!” one man called.
It’s a sentiment that Alt has heard a lot of and one that serves to highlight misunderstandings many hunters have about wolf management. Under federal guidelines, the only wolves that the states have historically been able to recommend for elimination by Wildlife Services are those that kill livestock. Provision 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act is an exception, granting states the authority to petition the government to remove wolves in places where predation keeps ungulate populations from meeting state objectives. The burden of proof falls to the state, however, and so far no wolves have been killed under the provision, although in past years Idaho has twice presented a case and been denied.
As a result of the federal restrictions, Alt says, elk herds in agricultural valleys tend to fare better than those in backcountry areas, where venison is on the menu, not beef or mutton. The Gallatin Canyon, the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness on the border of Yellowstone Park (where the famed northern Yellowstone herd has fallen from 20,000 to 5,000 elk since wolf reintroduction), the Idaho Panhandle–it is precisely these remote backcountry ranges where wolves have had the biggest impact on elk herds.
Will a wolf season make a difference in these places? This is the million-dollar question–literally. (Montana’s wolf management program is expected to cost $1 million annually; Idaho’s, $1.2 million.) But it’s not one with an easy answer.
Idaho outfitter Mike Popp, whose roadside sign betrays his pessimism about reintroduction, believes that wilderness elk herds are all but doomed and is dismissive of the wolf quota. “You introduce the continent’s best pack predator into a part of the state where elk are most vulnerable,” he says, his voice rising. “You lowball the quota and have a farce of a season. Cut to the chase. How many Wildlife Services kills are taken under the conditions hunters face, with the weapons we’re limited to?” Wildlife Services can use traps, poison, and aerial shooting to control predators. Popp adds, “You can’t manage wolves through incidental hunting in this kind of country. Come on.”
Popp’s “this kind of country” encompasses the north-central part of the state, which used to produce nearly half of Idaho’s elk harvest. Today, radio-collar surveys show that in the famed Lolo Zone along the Lochsa River, wolves are the primary cause of death among cow elk and older calves; that fewer than 75 percent of cow elk survive any given year (survival rates need to be 87 percent to maintain herd numbers); and that the herd is shrinking by about 12 percent a year. The three-month extension of Idaho’s wolf season largely targets the wolves in this area.
In Idaho, wolf impact is difficult to assess because herd declines are partly due to habitat loss where brush has overgrown lush open slopes created by wildfires in the early 20th century. A brutal winter in 1996 also killed many elk. But few biologists would dispute that in recent years wolves have compounded the problem by taking a heavy toll on calf and cow elk. For wilderness herds to recover, Popp believes the wolf quota would have to be raised and the wolves reclassified as furbearers, so that they can be trapped, baited, and lured with electronic calls year-round.
Montana biologist Alt is more optimistic about balancing wolf numbers and elk herds through public hunting. For example, a specific district could be created for the upper Gallatin Canyon to target wolves that are responsible for declines within the herd. The problem is what he calls the “bouncing ball of wolf management.”
“It’s hard to move forward as a game manager when I don’t know what I’ll be able to do next year,” Alt says. “My frustration is that the road isn’t clearly ours to walk down.”
What he refers to is a lawsuit brought by a coalition of environmental groups, represented by the law firm EarthJustice, that challenges the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to remove wolves from the endangered species list. If Donald Molloy, the U.S. judge who will hear the case this spring, deems that the state-by-state application of the Endangered Species Act is illegal (wolves have not been delisted in Wyoming), then wolves in Idaho and Montana will return to the list.
The Hunter: Backlash, Threats & Attacks
When Robert Millage comes around his desk at Idaho Land and Home to shake hands, you find yourself looking up. But the initial impression of an NFL linebacker a couple of years and a few good meals out of the game fades as soon as you leave the confines of his office. Excepting his size, nothing about Millage is imposing, and after spending a few hours in his company you realize he wants it that way. His clothes are casual. His goatee and mustache are neatly trimmed. He leans back on his heels in an effort not to loom when people approach him on the street.
After an older woman stops him at the door of the Hub Bar and Grill on Kamiah’s single downtown street–“I just want to say hi and thanks, Bob,” she tells him–Millage smiles and shakes his head. He doesn’t know her.
“I can’t even go into the grocery store without being held up a couple times,” he says. Inside the Hub, Millage’s celebrity in this sawmill town of 1,100 is hard to ignore. A framed poster with a photo of Millage kneeling over his wolf hangs behind the bar. Opposite is a cardboard sign stenciled with block letters–Bob Millage for President. The Hub’s proprietor, Bill Purdy, wore the sign at Kamiah’s Labor Day celebration when he paraded down Main Street, his shoulders draped in a coyote skin.
As Millage takes a seat, Purdy walks over to hand him a sheaf of anti-wolf flyers, including a photograph of a wolf eating the torn-off hindquarter of a doe whitetail while the deer stands nearby. It reads “Myth: Wolves are efficient killers. Fact: Wolves will eat their prey alive, or worse, eat a portion of the animal and leave it to suffer.” “I’ve become the front man for the hunting and ranching community and the Antichrist for the wolf crowd,” Millage explains after Purdy has left. “It’s been interesting, having your eyes opened to both sides.”
When Millage awoke the morning after his hunt, interesting was not an adequate word to describe the attention that he was about to receive. Every major newspaper and TV media outlet had picked up the story of the wolf killer. Photos Millage had taken, including one where he was hugging the wolf to his chest, were at that moment being scrutinized by hundreds of thousands of Americans riding subways or sitting down at the breakfast table. As a real estate agent, Millage had his phone number listed on websites, and from 6 a.m. to 10:30 that night, he held his cellphone to his ear while one caller after another laced into him with profanities.
Back when Millage owned the electronics store, he’d learned that the best way to deal with irate customers was to stay calm. His size had taught him the same lesson. “When you’re 6-foot-5 you get a long fuse,” he explains. “There’s a time in your 20s when people try to get you into bar fights just because you’re big. I ended up being the guy who broke up the fights.”
His efforts at peacemaking on this day would fail.
“They just wanted to spout off,” he says of the callers.
The vehemence directed at a solitary hunter seemed ironic to Millage, considering that each year, Wildlife Services kills several hundred Rocky Mountain wolves. Relatively few people seem to object to federal wolf control to save cattle, but let a hunter shoot one to save an elk and the wrath of the righteous falls upon him. “It was an emotional response, not an informed one,” Millage says.
In contrast to the calls, which mostly came from women, the flood of e-mails Millage received on the office computer, as well as comments posted on newspaper websites, were largely written by men. They were more sinister in tone.
From Peter S: You are a F‑‑‑‑‑‑ Ass‑‑‑‑ and your entire family is perverted as well.
From SHARK: Only an uncivilized, marginally developed genitalia, morally, mentally…deficient person, with criminal and sadistic tendencies who prays on innocense [sic]…would consider…such senseless murder…I bet this Robert BOY has molested a child.
From Nobody: Why don’t know [sic] take your kids out and rub them in blood and let them wander around a wolf pack.
Before the day’s end, anti-hunters had posted driving directions to Millage’s house, including satellite photos of his residence, on Craigslist, MySpace, and media blogsites. “I was shocked and appalled by the hostile comments I was getting, people judging you and saying horrible things about you,” Millage would later write to me in an email. “I figured ignoring it was the best bet…but as the volume increased, and the hostility of the tone kept growing, it worried me.”
As a single father with two sons, ages 3 and 5, Millage’s first concern was the safety of his children, who had been visiting their mother the day he shot the wolf. He decided it was best for the boys to stay with her the next several days. When he finally switched his cellphone off at 10:30 p.m., the lights in his house stayed on. Timber, the yellow Lab that typically slept outdoors, stayed inside. Millage had a concealed carry permit for a snubnose .38 and kept it in reach. Sleep proved as elusive as it had the night before in his tent. The difference was he had been thinking as a hunter then. Now, he was thinking as the hunted.
The next morning, Millage took action.
“I decided that maybe I could use the media that ran the wolf story nationwide, and got me this attention, against the people attacking me,” he says.
His weapons were a phone logged with calls from reporters and an inbox of media e-mails. So began a process of punching call-back numbers and reply bars. Both Spokane TV stations sent camera crews. Some of the hate messages Millage saved on his cellphone were played back for the broadcasts. Abruptly, the story turned 180 degrees, from the shooting of the wolf to the harassment of the hunter. But even before the second wave of stories went on air and to print, message boards on media websites suggested that the blitz of hate mail had backfired. One comment from the Los Angeles Times blogs read:
“Anti hunters threaten to inflict violence towards hunters but talk out the other side of their mouths in proclamation of ‘coexistence’…there’s nothing funny about threatening another human being.”
Millage also noticed change on a personal level and came to appreciate calls of support from fellow hunters and ranchers. He recalls Idaho Fish and Game officers offering to post protection at his house. A Montana rancher called to say he was willing to “round up a truck full of guys” and drive down. Men he didn’t know offered to bear arms in his defense. “I’ll be honest,” Millage says, “some of them scared me more than the antis.” Millage decided he didn’t need anyone’s help, nor would he have anything to hide. He would not change his phone number or e-mail address. Nor would he peel the business stickers off his SUV, even after returning from a hike to find that someone had urinated on the hood and tires. “It washes off,” he says.
What he would do was turn the tables on those who had attacked him through cyberspace. Millage created a blogsite (wolfcomments.blogspot.com) where he posted the most offensive messages. Hunters who clicked on the site countered with comments of their own, a few lambasting wolves as heartless killers and espousing right-wing zeal–“the left is well-funded but we, as American patriots, have God and the Constitution on our side”–but most simply congratulating Millage and complimenting him for keeping his head up. Unbidden by Millage, some also sent return e-mails to the addresses posted with the hate comments. With the cloak of anonymity removed, people became more reluctant to air their criticisms. Other hunters began to police the Internet on Millage’s behalf, and in a few days, many of the worst comments had been struck from websites.
But the fallout wasn’t over. Even as e-mail traffic thinned, letters postmarked in the days following the hunt began to stream in. One included a certificate upgrading Millage from “half-assed jerk-off” to “Complete Loser.” It was signed “BB Wolf.” Another letter, no return address, warned him that what goes around comes around. “Watching you from afar,” it concluded.
The .38 would stay on the nightstand awhile longer.
The New Reality: Elk Hunting’s Future
As the two sides of the wolf debate fight it out in court, elk are adapting to predators–both two- and four-legged varieties–in unforeseen ways. It has long been observed that elk react to wolves by seeking cover in the steepest, thickest country they can find and by flooding ranchlands, where there is perceived safety in numbers and open spaces. Now, research has revealed that wolves may influence elk to expand their home ranges and to adopt new migration patterns. Notably, this has happened inside Yellowstone Park, and biologist Cunningham thinks it is possible that some elk in the Gallatin herd may also be migrating considerable distances to avoid wolves.
Group sizes can change, too, with elk breaking into small groups to avoid detection in summer and herding up in large numbers to present a united front during winter. Research by Montana wildlife biologist Kelly Proffitt found that elk on winter ranges react to human hunters in many of the same ways they react to wolves, with vigilance, by moving away from hunters and by maximizing herd sizes in vulnerable areas–for example, near access points. The belief that wolves are responsible for early elk migrations that send elk onto open ranchlands before rifle seasons start–denying public hunters opportunity–may, at least in some areas, be a learned response to trigger fingers instead.
What does this bode for the future of elk hunting?
First, hunters should understand that all the news isn’t bad. Elk have continued to prosper over large areas that overlap with wolves, and overall herd populations remain at or above management objectives in both Wyoming and Montana. Elk harvest in Idaho has fallen from 25,000 to 15,000 over the past 15 years, a reflection of fewer tags being offered, but the decline isn’t entirely due to predation. Biologists are cautious of continued expansion of wolves, however, and in some areas are taking measures to control damage by capping cow permits and enacting other hunting restrictions. Some wildlife managers I’ve spoken with believe restrictions should’ve come sooner in some places and that states compounded the wolf problem by offering liberal cow permits despite mounting evidence, often provided by hunters, that herds were suffering. But hunters, too, can be reluctant to sacrifice opportunity. “Better we take them than the wolves” was the expressed sentiment at a public meeting on the Gallatin Canyon closure proposal, where 80 percent of hunters polled wanted to continue unlimited hunting of bull elk, despite biologists’ warnings that the herd was in such bad shape that it might not be able to replace them.
The research hunters used to be able to do with their boots must now be augmented with fingertip research on computer keys and phone buttons programmed to ring the offices of regional game managers. Hunters shouldn’t expect to find elk where they did in the past, nor can they rely on migration patterns to have remained the same. No one should expect opening weekend to be easy. Elk are already on the alert. And quieter. They just don’t bugle as much. The popular strategy of glassing elk in the evening and stalking them before dawn–in outfitter parlance, “putting them to bed and waking them up in the morning”–could be wishful thinking. With wolves on their heels, elk keep on the move. Here today, gone tomorrow: That is the mantra of elk hunting in the future.
“Wolves have turned elk into whitetails,” says Mike Ross, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wolf specialist. “They don’t stay in the open, they brush up in security cover. You have to dig them out.” And, he points out, “One wolf or 50, it doesn’t matter.”
In that sense, there’s no turning back the page. Elk have changed. To be successful, elk hunters have to change, too. They’re going to have to become the kind of hunter that Theodore Roosevelt championed in his story, “An Elk Hunt at Two-Ocean Pass”:
“In a hunting trip the days of…unrequited toil…always far outnumber the red letter days of success. But it is just these times of failure that test the hunter. In the long run, commonsense and dogged perseverance avail him more than any other qualities. The man who does not give up, but hunts steadily and resolutely through the spells of bad luck…is the man who wins success in the end.”
The quote, which was displayed in the lunchroom at the Montana Region 3 headquarters, is one of biologist Julie Cunningham’s favorites. An elk hunter in the Roosevelt tradition of hard work and self-reliance, Cunningham planned to go on a solo hunt the day after we met. She mentioned a mountain range to the north. It’s a place where wolf tracks seldom overlap those of elk and their makers are a distant song, for now at least, one that does not elicit a feeling of doom.
She insisted it was just a coincidence.
The Hunter: His Center
Thirty days after his shot reverberated throughout the country, the musty smell of the wolf was still noticeable in Robert Millage’s SUV. “I’m not sure it will ever come out,” he told me. “That wolf’s not going away.”
Millage is aware that there is more than surface truth to the statement, and that he’ll never be able to erase his name from the controversy over wolves and wolf hunting. Nor is he certain he wants to. Having been thrust into the position of spokesman for the hunting community (he recently took part in an Idaho Public Television debate with a panel that included representatives of the state game department and Defenders of Wildlife), he knows his opinions carry more weight than they did before and that he must pick his words with care.
Writing down his thoughts, he tried to explain his position: “Through it all, I tried to refrain from lashing out against the anti-hunting crowd in a negative way that would make all hunters look bad. I have since just tried to focus on the positives…getting to meet hunters from all over the country…I managed to drag my 15 minutes of fame out to about 30, according to my friends. Part of me wants to try to use my short-term notoriety to my advantage, but the other part knows I’m just Bob Millage. I don’t want to alienate those who know me by coming off as more than what I am.”
What Millage is, at heart, is a hunter. Although he did not kill an elk during the 2009 season, he did help pack out a bull a friend shot south of Kamiah. And later in November, he was reminded of his comment about the wolf “not going away” in a literal sense. Turning a bend in a trail while hunting whitetails, he nearly collided with a wolf loping in the opposite direction.
“I don’t know who was more surprised,” he says.
In January, Idaho Fish and Game issued wolf licenses for backcountry districts where the quota had not been met. Millage bought one on the second of the month. On the ninth, he strapped on snowshoes and headed up a remote drainage of the Lochsa River, looking for tracks.