A QUEST FOR A GREY WOLF
East central Idaho, with the openness of its high sage-covered plateaus to the steep, timbered peaks of the Bitterroot Mountains, is home to the Salmon-Challis National Forest, Frank Church Wilderness Area and the aptly named, River of No Return. Wildlife as diverse as the sage grouse, mule deer, elk, bear, mountain lion, big horn sheep and of course now, the wolf, inhabit Idaho, under the splendor and watchful eyes of the bald eagles overhead. Millions of acres easily distract hunters from glassing for game, just by the sheer beauty of the highly-varied terrain and the creatures within.
Here the habitat changes quickly from bunchgrasses and sage on arid mountainsides, to heavy timber and rock outcroppings in the steep river canyons of the higher elevations. Wolves, as predators, travel where their prey goes, always on the lookout for an opportunity. As seasons change from fall to winter and ground cover becomes hidden by snow, the game and the wolves move down slope. The well-documented wolf predation has been devastating to the elk, deer and moose populations in particular and is a constant topic of discussion among regional ranchers and residents, many of whom are also avid hunters.
Long a destination of hunters seeking the thrill of the chase and the taking of game, this region is also home to many residents for whom the hunt has become a way of life. Descended from generations in the region, Gary Beers tells with a smile you can hear in his voice, of his great grandmother moving into the area by covered wagon. Gary’s first hunts were with his dad at the age of six or seven, and he has lived in and hunted this region every year since he was old enough to have a license.
Pursuit of the often near but elusive wolf, for Gary, focused on covering a large territory at a fairly fast pace, checking for signs and tracks of recent activity. As Gary recalls, “I had been hunting them for about a month. I’d seen them but always the next ridge over, or five miles away, or going into the next canyon…I was always a day behind them or a day ahead of them.”
Being such a popular topic, information on wolf-sightings is shared among area residents in these sparsely populated canyons. The real break came when good friends, Jon and Nancy, called one night after dark to say the wolves had moved down from the hill and were howling in the canyon. Gary got in touch with hunting partner, Craig Burns, and set up the hunt for predawn the next morning. After a month of scouting, this could be it.
Still well before daylight, the two patiently listened for the telltale sound, the chorus of the pack…but not a howl was heard! About daybreak, they took a coyote that was feeding on a downed elk carcass and continued checking the canyons, looking for fresh tracks. Up one more canyon without luck, then it seemed like a good time for a cup of coffee and to think about the situation. Then they heard it, the first mournful howl and then the pack joined in. Gary recounts, “You could see them, a pack of six moving along the gulch. A rangefinder check had them at about 500 meters.”
It was the last day of the year and snow cover was about 16 inches deep; they would have to move fast, as the wolves were on the go. It would be a real hurry-up deal to get set up and ready. They moved into position and as Gary tells it, “I grabbed my gun, fanny pack, and set up prone with the bipod on a log and the pack under the stock… it would have to be a fairly steep, uphill shot. A big gray was first up thehill. Craig Burns was on the rangefinder and about the time I was set up and ready, the big gray laid down on top of the hill. I said, ‘well, where is he Burns’?” Standing, with his eye on the rangefinder and a better view, Craig said, “He’s there, 647 meters (708 yards) lying down.”
Gary continues, “The black-coated wolf was walking uphill toward the gray and started to cower down; the big gray stood up and towered over her…they reached forward and grabbed an elk leg and started a tug-o-war with it. Seconds later, the black turned and headed downhill. The big gray took a few steps and stopped on the point of the hill, somewhat quartering away and looked right straight down the canyon toward us; I put the 650 MilDot on his shoulder and touched it off. Down he went, dropped in his tracks where he stood. Then the thwap could be heard. The adrenaline was pumping pretty good, first wolf! It was pretty exciting and we were pretty charged for quite some time. After the shot, the other wolves scattered; you couldn’t see them, but you could hear them howling. Then they regrouped on the top of the next ridge and were another 600-800 yards farther away. They were howling and working back and forth.”
Not surprisingly, the uphill climb and retrieval of the big gray wasn’t even talked about as it surely must have only taken a few effortless moments. The wolf had been hit at the base of the neck on the shoulder. When finally back at the truck with the big gray, a long time resident and one of the first on-site said, “That’s one hell of a long shot!” To which Gary replied confidently, “Yeah but I can make that shot, I’d been practicing almost that exact distance for my (successful) sheep hunt that I went on in the Middle Fork and I have full confidence in the gun and the optics to make that shot.”
The big gray had been a ‘collared’ wolf; reporting the kill to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) within a 72-hr. period, was required. He weighed in at 107 pounds. When asked further about the shot, and what it takes to make one like that, Gary reflected, “You’ve got to have a lot of confidence in the gun and optics for one; and secondly, you can’t really even hang on to the gun, you don’t really want to be touching it, you just want to put your shoulder up against it and reach up and just barely touch off the trigger.”
To follow up, Gary had put just under 150 rounds through that gun at the rifle range in the preceding three-month period and knew what to expect from the gun and the load. Put into action on this hunt was a .300 Weatherby Magnum Mark V, hand-loaded with a 180 grain Nosler AccuBond. The rifle had received trigger work, for crispness and pull, a muzzle brake installed, a forend bipod added and was equipped with a Shepherd MilDot reticle scope. The load had been worked up by Gary for upcoming elk hunts this season and at the time had been shooting so well, it was ultimately the first choice for the wolf too. When asked if he always loads his own cartridges and if it gives him more confidence in the shot, Gary replied, “For sure, I’ve been loading rounds for most of my adult life…I probably started when I was 13 or 14 years old. This .300 Weatherby Magnum is a new gun for me. I’ve now shot it a lot and I like the long range capabilities it has.”
As is the case with this hunt, and as we’ve consistently read in Hunting Illustrated and elsewhere, the ethical long-range shot is born from a sound knowledge of your equipment and skill developed through practice…and more practice.
When asked for his thoughts on hunting wolves in this country on open hillsides, Gary responded with, “If you’re gonna hunt wolves in this country, you better have a long (range-capable) gun. They are getting smarter as the years go by. They didn’t have any predators, except for themselves…they’re out there, but your chances of seeing them are slim. I’ve seen 12 this fall in one pack; and they were hot after a big, six point bull (elk) and about 30 cows.”
Regarding the wolf’s impact on wildlife in this area, Gary reports recently seeing six, wolf-killed elk on a one-day scouting trip through the Panther Creek drainage. Gary’s comments reflect the opinion of many who live in and experience this area daily when he speaks of the wolf. “Honest to God, it’s not their fault that they’re here; man brought them and put them here.”
The consequences of man’s actions, therefore, must be owned by man alone. The wolf is pretty much not afraid of anything, but they are learning and will become more formidable in future years. As for the big gray, he has earned his place of honor in Gary’s living room.
For further information on wildlife and hunting in Idaho, contact the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) http://fishandgame.idaho.gov/public/hunt/