This lion hound, named Sadie, was killed by wolves on a hunt near Libby, Montana on February 2. Left: Owner, Ryker Hittle, and his father, Todd, with Sadie and her last bobcat before the wolf attack. Photos courtesy of Phil Soucy.
On the morning of February 23, Hamilton, Montana, outfitter Tom Henderson and Dan Morris, one of his guides, were trudging north and downslope through a glade of ponderosa pines and Douglas fir trees. About 100 yards ahead of them they saw Morris’s bluetick hound Sadie baying up a tree.
“At that point, it looked like we were going to kill a big tom lion,” Henderson said.
Henderson and Morris walked down toward the treed lion. When they’d closed about half the distance, they saw seven wolves–five black and two grey–rush the tree from the west. Sadie was so intent on the treed cougar that she never noticed the wolves until one charged in, grabbed her by the neck and shook her for about five seconds.
“All we had with us was pistols,” Henderson said. “When you lion hunt seriously, sometimes a bottle of water is too much to have in your backpack, much less a scoped rifle.”
Both men yelled and fired on the wolves. For a few moments, the wolves circled Sadie, who lay motionless in the snow. The wolves then broke off and ran northeast, dangerously close to where two trailing hounds –Henderson’s dogs — were charging full-voiced toward them. Morris ran downhill to the tree and instantly realized Sadie was dead. Then he and Henderson ran to intercept his incoming hounds before the wolves could get to them. The lion escaped in the chaos.
“In 20 years of lion hunting, I’ve never had an incident–and, especially in Idaho, I run in [areas frequented by] wolves all the time,” Henderson said. But Henderson’s misfortune is not a rare occurrence in Western Montana this year.
What’s changed is the proliferation of wolves in the Northern Rockies. In 2002, Federal wildlife officials confirmed 292 wolves living in Montana. Idaho had 263 known wolves and 69 were counted in Wyoming (not counting Yellowstone Park). Ten years later, Montana had 625 confirmed wolves, Idaho had 683 and Wyoming, outside of Yellowstone, had 277–an increase in the region of more than 1,000 wolves.
Although nobody is keeping statistics on lion hound-wolf encounters it stands to reason that more wolves — many of them pushing into new territories and habitats occupied by mountain lions — will result in more such encounters. And while the death of a hunting dog is always tragic, these encounters could become the cause of a bigger problem. In all three states, hound hunting is the only widespread management tool for containing lion populations, which have been expanding in recent years. With more wolves in the woods some houndsmen are having second thoughts about exposing their dogs to the dangers of an attack. That means less pressure on lion populations. Add more lions on top of more wolves and you ratchet up the pressure on prey populations, including valuable big game species such as deer and elk.
Phil Soucy, another Montana houndsman from Libby, was hunting with five friends on February 2 when they cut very large cat tracks in a drainage where they had recently spotted wolf tracks. They snowmobiled a box around the drainage and saw where the wolves had left the area, so they loosed three hounds. Unbeknownst to them, either the wolves had doubled back or another group moved through. The next time they saw their dogs, they were looking at stiff carcasses in the snow.
“We had with us a 14-year old boy who had a young dog that was a phenom, really coming into her own,” Soucy said. “His dog was killed. He loved that dog. It really made his eyes shine to have that dog. He’s still pretty broken up over it. Don’t know that he’ll ever hunt dogs again.”
Soucy said the incident ended his lifelong interest in hunting with hounds.
“I’m going to become a wolfer, try to trap wolves,” he said. “I don’t enjoy the stress I feel when my dogs are out there. You strive to breed a cold-nose dog that can follow two-day old track, and now you can’t do that because you don’t know where they’ll end up.”
In another reported incident in January, wolves killed all three hounds Drew Zeiler and three of his friends were running on a hot cat track in the Ninemile Valley northwest of Missoula.
Prime lion hunting season–January into early March–overlaps wolf breeding season. During those months, wolves fiercely defend their territories and females. Most of the interactions seem to occur when hounds have a lion treed, when the dogs are stationary and baying loudly.
What’s Being Done?
The incidents seem to be stacking up in Montana this year, and those are just reported attacks. Soucy said he knows of two hunters who have lost hounds this year and didn’t bother to go public with their stories. Roland Deane, chairman of board for the Montana Houndsmen’s Association said that when, two years ago, wolves killed one of his dogs on a hunt, he called the local Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) warden to report it. The warden, Deane said, never returned the call.
Montana FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim confirmed that the department has no formal procedure for reporting wolf attacks on hounds.
“We’re not keeping information on that,” Aasheim said. “The houndsmen are pretty much doing it themselves. I’m aware of some incidents, but that’s their business. The houndsmen know about this as a challenge, but I don’t know what an agency like ours would do about it.”
Aasheim also stated that, for all the talk of nervous houndsmen, lion harvests have increased dramatically in recent seasons and quotas have risen. As of the middle of March, Montana hunters had killed 530 lions in 2013–an increase of 200 cats over the full season five years ago. “As far as we can tell, lions are on an upswing,” Aasheim said.
A recent FWP study in the Bitterroot Valley commissioned by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation indicates that, at least in that study area, mountain lions, not wolves, are exerting the greatest pressure on dwindling elk herds. If lion numbers continue increasing while lion hunters drop out or reduce their chases in the name of dog safety, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming could lose a crucial tool in keeping numbers in check. “Hunters are our primary management tool for all species,” said Idaho Fish & Game spokesman Mike Keckler, “so if hunters and houndsmen are dropping out, you bet we’re concerned. We don’t want to see that happen.”
The problem extends into Idaho, as well, where wolves have killed both lion and bear hounds. There, Idaho Fish & Game officials refer houndsmen who lose dogs to Idaho’s branch of the federal Wildlife Services agency, who will simply confirm that, indeed, the death was caused by wolves but will not take further action (Montana’s Wildlife Services branch will become involved in the deaths of herding or livestock guard dogs, but not hunting dogs).
Tim Hunt, Jr., vice president of the Idaho Houndsmen Association, said he knows of at least five incidents in recent years where hounds died at the fangs of wolves. Hunt had a near miss himself last year, when he loosed two hounds on a cat track about 10 miles outside of Boise. The dogs disappeared over a hill and the 35-year-old Hunt hiked after them.
As he crested the hill, he saw his dogs at the base of a tree surrounded by a pack of six wolves. He fired his pistol just as a wolf rushed in and bit one of his dogs. The gunshots spooked the wolves into breaking off the attack and running. Hunt’s dog suffered only minor puncture wounds.
Hunt said he, too, hears houndsmen talking about quitting rather than putting their dogs at risk. He thinks wildlife agencies in Idaho, Montana and other states inhabited by wolves should at least acknowledge the problem, document it and play a proactive part in seeking ways to minimize contact between hounds and wolves.
So far solutions seem scant. Houndsmen have tried attaching bells to their dogs’ collars, but Henderson’s dogs wore bells to no avail. Idaho Fish & Game spokesman Keckler suggests that houndsmen try to “howl up a wolf before turning your dogs loose.” People have suggested using flashing lights on the dogs’ collars, but there’s little evidence that it works. Cut vests and collars, like those worn by hog hounds in the South, might provide some protection, but, as Tim Hunt said, “If you look at the pictures of what wolves have done to those hounds, they’ll get the dogs no matter what.”