Predator vs. Prey. It’s a dynamic balancing act. During most of the hunting season I am the dominant predator, or so I thought. Seeking to find my prey, preferably elk or deer. This is the time of year when I get the chance to harvest my own wild meat and enjoy all the amazing wild places found here in Montana. I never realized how many other predators were out there until the past two years. Wolf tags have been issued in Montana for a reason. In 1995 & 1996 federal Fish and Wildlife Service transplanted 66 Canadian wolves to Yellowstone National Park and Idaho. By the year 2002, the Northern Rockies wolf population surpassed the federal recovery goal of 300 wolves in 30 packs. In the past decade, Fish and Wildlife has killed about 7% of wolves annually (1,200 wolves in total over the years). The wolves have expanded into most mountain ranges now in Montana, and we are seeing a decrease in elk & deer populations in many areas. As of now, the population has grown to over 1,700 and stronger measures were taken this year to help hunters reduce the population. One thing is clear, hunting is conservation. As a hunter I feel I should do my part. That’s why I bought a wolf tag and if the opportunity arose, I would be glad to use it.
This past weekend we met up with our Dad for some time spent elk hunting. He was looking for his first elk, and we were excited to help him try to achieve that goal. Unfortunately the trip started out with a flat tire just a few short miles from camp. We threw the spare tire on and got geared up at the trailhead. That night and the next day we spent our time attempting to still-stalk elk through the dark timber. A tough venture when there’s three guys and frozen, crunchy ground. With a stormfront moving across western Montana, I made the decision to change locations for the night. We navigated our way through the falling snow, often not able to see more than 50 yards in front of the truck. We knew with the fresh snow in the morning we would have a great chance to get close to some elk. The snow would allow us a huge advantage come morning.
After my 6AM alarm, I opened truck topper door to a fresh 3 inches of snow covering our two-truck campground. Zack and I gathered ourselves in time to eat a quick meal and move our Dad’s truck 1.75miles to where we planned on exiting the timber later that day. We dropped the truck off and made it back to the trailhead for a 3/4 mile hike through the squeaky fresh snow. I made sure not to tell my Dad exactly how far we were going to be hiking, for I wanted him to forget about miles hiked, and just focus on shooting a bull. Fortunately we made it over halfway up the first ridge before shooting light was upon us. Once making it to the top of the ridge, I saw my first set of animal tracks on an old logging road. It looked like snowshoe prints from a distance, but upon further examination it was a fresh set of grizzly tracks!
Of course the bruin was walking in the direction we were hunting, so I carefully followed the tracks, hoping he jumped off the game trail further ahead. My Dad was getting antsy, always thinking the worse is going to happen. I reassured him that the bear didn’t want anything to do with us. Soon we came across two sets of elk tracks heading the opposite direction we were hiking. They obviously had sought out lower ground during the night. We pushed on, glad to see the grizzly tracks head off the trail a 1/4 mile later. As we hiked we passed multiple sets of deer tracks, but never caught a glimpse of a single deer. My Dad was in awe of the beautiful white landscape before him, helping to keep his mind off of his aching legs. We finally got to the location where I shot my very first elk. Unfortunately, the elk were not there feeding in that same spot. We sat down and ate a quick bite, boosted our energy, and set out looking for fresh elk tracks.
As we worked our way back over the steep ridge, we came across 4 sets of elk tracks. I asked my Dad, “you have the energy to follow these tracks a ways?” He replied he did, so we started following the tracks. Soon enough we found some fresh beds, but no sign of elk. We followed the tracks further, as they spread out in the same general direction but a good distance apart. We positioned my Dad in the lead so he would get a shot if he caught view of a bull. Zack was between us with the camera hoping to have enough time to film if we saw an elk. After about a 1/4 mile of slowly creeping through the dark timber, my brother stops us dead in our tracks. He mouths “bull”, pointing to the hillside 150yards away. My Dad and myself look, unable to make out an elk. The timber was blocking our view and before either of us could move he trotted off. Zack was smiling, thinking it was funny that the cameraman could have just shot a nice 5×5 bull elk while the two hunters could see nothing. I didn’t share the same feelings at the moment. We continued following the set of tracks through the overgrown larch trees, hoping for the best. After tracking another 1/4 mile, I see another bull looking at us through the trees!! As I raise my Vortex scope up to see the bulls rack, the bull takes off once again.
The whole time we were tracking these elk we noticed that there was dirt kicked up along their tracks. Almost as if they were trotting through the woods. We knew it wasn’t us pushing them so we pushed on hoping to catch up to them if they slowed to feed for the morning. There were 5-7 sets of tracks in the snow so we knew there were more elk to find than just the two bulls we had bumped.
As we bypassed a small clump of thick brush I saw a dark figure moving through the timber to our left! At first I thought bear, but I saw a long tail! I instantly dropped to a knee and said “wolf” to Zack behind me. I quickly aimed my rifle into the only clear gap I had in the trees. The wolf finally trotted into my shooting lane. I settled the crosshairs and let the 8mm Ultra Mag rip! The wolf dropped instantly, my quartering away shot killing him instantaneously. “I just shot a wolf!” I glanced back at my brother, with the camera on me. “I just shot a black wolf!” I was so amped up and couldn’t believe what had just taken place! One second I’m following bulls, the next I’m seeing wolves hunting the same group of elk as we were!! This was my first real up close encounter with a wolf. I’ve heard them howl, and seen fresh wolf kills, but have never had the chance to get this close undetected. I approached the black mass of fur, completely in awe of the sheer beauty these animals behold.
To see the size of these animals is quite amazing. Upon further investigation of the area, we found multiple sets of wolf tracks, some being larger than this black male. Obviously a pack of wolves had the same idea we did that day. To be able to share this moment with my brother and Dad was priceless. My Dad only gets time to hunt a couple times during the year and this was truly an eye opening experience for him.
After knotching my tag and getting a handful of photos, I loaded the jet black wolf into my Mystery Ranch Long Bow and began arduously placing one foot in front of the other as we climbed the steep snow covered hill. It would be a good 500 vertical foot climb to the ridgeline and then 2 miles downhill to the truck.
After cresting over the small peak we came across the logging road which would take us back to our truck. Before I stepped foot onto the road, I noticed once again a set of large tracks? It honestly looked like bigfoot had ambled through. Of course we knew better and upon further investigation it was another set of grizzly tracks, this time even larger! Once again the tracks were going in the direction we were heading. Another 1/4 mile down the logging road the tracks made their way back into the forest.
We peacefully made it back to the truck, all things intact. No we didn’t get a bull for my father, but we did have one heck of a hunting experience! I couldn’t believe it, I had just put down an elk killing machine, another predator. The same predator that was hunting the same prey as I was. Not to mention we saw grizzly tracks twice that day. As humans we feel we are at the top of the food chain, when in reality, grizzlies and wolves rank very close seconds. We all have the same motive, survive. If it weren’t for grocery stores, humans would have to go out and harvest their own meat, which today is the healthiest meat in the world! The wolves are taking a toll on elk here in Montana, and I have seen this first hand. There out there, and we cross paths more and more often. This time we crossed paths a little too close. I may have just saved those elk I was pursuing today, and ya that feels good! The balance between wolves and elk is off right now and it felt great to help do my part of the management that FWP sets out for hunters each year.