Hunting outfitter Ray Rugg toes a crusted depression in the snow. "Wolf tracks," he says. The tracks crisscross this small meadow past a piece of front leg and scraps of hide, the last remains of a white-tail deer.
On this damp early Spring afternoon Rugg's only looking for signs of the six wolves he frequently sees on his ranch in the rugged Bitterroot Mountains west of Superior, Montana. But come September, these predators will become prey. Rugg plans to guide hunters into these mountains on both sides of the Montana-Idaho border when the first legal wolf hunting season in the contiguous United States begins.
"I already got a line of clients waiting to put in an application if the hunt goes through," says Rugg, whose family has guided hunters in pursuit of deer, elk, black bear or mountain lion in Montana and Idaho for over sixty years.
As the first wolf hunts begin in the Northern Rockies, state and federal wildlife officials hail the transition to state management with public hunting as a major step forward in wolf conservation. They say it will develop greater acceptance and a conservation constituency for the contentious carnivore among hunters like Rugg and the public at large, because citizens will have a hand in management. But critics contend that a more enlightened ethic is unlikely, and the wolf's long-entrenched malevolent symbolism, and the backlash it incites, will persist.
For many ranchers, hunters and outfitters like Rugg, the opportunity to hunt wolves has been long in coming. To varying degrees people in Rugg's circles harbor a deep resentment of the presence of the wolf, an unwanted predator their forebears were wise to eradicate, revived by an intrusive federal government. They've watched wolf numbers rise — along with conflicts with livestock and domestic animals. Rugg's had wolves fight his dogs right on the porch, powerless to legally do anything about it.
Rugg believes wolf numbers are too high and blames wolves for declines in area deer and elk populations. He says he's come to accept the presence of wolves, he just wants to reduce their numbers, "to help the deer and elk population more than anything."
Last month's removal of gray wolves in the Northern Rockies from the endangered species list, a scant thirteen years after they were first reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho, marks a seminal moment in the history of American wildlife conservation. For the first time, a species officially recovered under the Endangered Species Act will be managed with public hunting.
"We're trying to develop a fair chase ethic around wolves that allows hunters to take ownership in their management," says Carolyn Sime, wolf coordinator for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "Without that ownership it's a damage program, not a wildlife program."
Sime believes public hunting will develop a strong hunter constituency that advocates for wolves politically and helps protect and improve habitat, just as hunters do now for other animals like deer, elk and mountain lions.
The key is for hunters to move beyond the view that they compete with wolves for big game. The statistics show that with the exception of a few elk herds, wolves have not had a negative effect on big game populations or hunter success rates, Sime says.
Steve Nadeau, large carnivore manager for Idaho Fish and Game, agrees. And he points to a recent survey conducted by his department that found 80 percent of hunters in Idaho oppose wolf recovery efforts. That number switched to 60 percent in favor of recovery efforts if wolf populations were managed through hunting.
Public hunting has played a central role in the restoration and conservation of wildlife in North America for the past century. It was a group of famous sport hunters concerned with the decimation of wildlife, most notably Theodore Roosevelt, that launched the country's unprecedented wildlife restoration, says Jim Posewitz, executive director of the Orion Institute and author of three books on hunting ethics inherent to the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.
The first half of the story is well known, but it bears repeating. As Americans pushed west during the 18th and 19th centuries, they encountered a landscape teeming with wildlife. Americans trapped or hunted species after species, from beaver to trumpeter swans, deer to wolves, until "we had stripped the continent clean," Posewitz says. In the best known example, market hunters and government agents intent on crippling the economy of the Plains Indians wiped out tens of millions of bison in just a few decades.
The second half of the story is less well known. While a few Americans, most notably Henry David Thoreau and George Perkins Marsh advocated for protection of wildlife and wild places, it was not a widespread public sentiment.
"The American culture didn't have a conservation ethic. That just wasn't something people had," Posewitz says.
Attitudes began to change during Roosevelt's presidency. Roosevelt protected wildlife from the market, set aside 9 percent of the country for conservation and successfully persuaded the governors of more than 40 states to establish conservation agencies. He promoted what is known as the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, the dominant model used by state agencies to manage wildlife — and the one they believe will help foster long-term conservation of wolves.
The North American Model established that all wildlife belong to the people, not the landowners. The public could go out, buy a license, and harvest an animal to feed their family or hang on the wall. The monies generated from licenses and from taxes on ammunition fund the state agencies responsible for wildlife management and much of the country's wildlife restoration.
"One hundred years later we got deer in our cities, bears in our orchards and goose shit on every golf shoe in America," Posewitz says.
For most of the 20th century, this model focused on animals that people eat, like deer and elk. Other species benefited indirectly from habitat protection or, like wolves, from the prey base deer and elk provide. Only in recent decades have hunter conservation efforts slowly expanded to include predators, such as black bears and mountain lions.
"The wolf is certainly a challenge for us, but if we can address the wolf in the same context as we address the lions, as we address the bears, we have something justifiably to be proud of as a hunting community," Posewitz says.
Wildlife officials point to the mountain lion as an example of public attitudes surrounding a major predator evolving with its designation as a trophy game animal. When government bounties were removed on mountain lions in the 1960s, the outcry was loud and bitter. It would be the death of ranching, many thought, and lead to sharp increases in attacks on humans, neither of which have occurred, says Ed Bangs, the ex-wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Today more than 31,000 lions roam the Western states and are hunted everywhere but in California. "They have a huge public constituency" among houndsman, and complaints of conflict with livestock, humans or depredations on deer and elk are few, Bangs says.
One such lion advocate is houndsman Cal Ruark, who has hunted lions in the Bitterroot Valley since 1964. Early on, Ruark says he "didn't really respect mountain lions" and called them "just a predator." But now Ruark leads the Bitterroot Valley Houndsman Association, a group formed a few years ago out of a perceived mismanagement of lions by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
"The mountain lion quota in the Bitterroot Valley was so high it was ridiculous," Ruark says. "They were on an extermination campaign."
His association helped reduce the quota on mountain lions in the valley from 125 in the late 1990s — more than the total valley lion population, according to Ruark — to just 13 last year. Its goal is to increase the lion population, improve the age structure and to get more science to drive management decisions.
But the idea that wolf hunting will somehow lead to a setting aside of acerbic attitudes toward the wild canines and evolve a conservation ethic does not match the evidence on the ground, says Mark Hebblewhite, assistant professor of ungulate habitat ecology at the University of Montana, who researches wolf-ungulate interactions in the U.S. and Canada.
For one, people forget that the success of the North American Model "came at the expense of thousands and thousands of wolves and grizzly bears," says Hebbelwhite.
Hebbelwhite submits that the conservation of predators arose from conservation biology which emphasizes protection of exploited species for ecological principles, not from the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation that emphasizes conservation for continued human use. Transitioning the wolf from the former to the latter model will require a significant transition in the human ecological understanding of wolves, he says. And he adds that in none of the places around the world where wolves are currently hunted, from the Ukraine and Mongolia to Alaska and Canada, has a wolf-hunter constituency been developed.
"Everywhere around the world wolves are killed because they are seen as a direct competitor for ungulates and livestock," Hebblewhite says.
Skeptics, including some hunters, contend that wolf hunters will maintain attitudes they already own: most conservation-minded hunters aren't interested in killing wolves, and those who are seem to be driven by the opportunity to shoot an animal they view as a threat to their livelihoods, or perhaps to retaliate against the government for reintroducing it.
"A lot of people are lining up to blow away a wolf not because it is a wolf, but because it is a symbol of the federal government," says Gary Ferguson, author of several books on wolf reintroduction. He says ethical hunting "always held a level of respect for the prey, whether it be elk or wolves. Lacking that respect, it becomes slaughter."
Ferguson says environmentalists and wolf advocates err in viewing the wolf as a symbol of all things pure and innocent about wildness, when "the wolf is just a wild animal trying to make a living."
Wolf advocates are highly skeptical that wolf hunting will increase public tolerance for the animal. They fear that instead of a step toward more enlightened conservation, it signifies a return to centuries of persecution when the wolf was reviled throughout Europe and America as the devil's dog.
"Wolves are going to be singled out for persecution just as they were before," says Michael Robinson, author of Predatory Bureaucracy and a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, part of a coalition planning to sue to restore the gray wolf's federal protection in the Northern Rockies.
Robinson says the dominant attitudes and the collusion of hunting and ranching interests with government agencies that originally led to the wolf's extermination in the West persist, poised to again reduce wolf numbers to unsustainable numbers.
"That's what we're going to return to," Robinson says. "We haven't left the past. We haven't necessarily learned the lessons of the past."
Whether or not hunting wolves will lead to what Posewitz calls a "higher level of sophistication" among hunters or sends the wolf back to the endangered species list waits to be seen.
Wildlife officials and some ecologists say hunting will help reduce conflicts between wolves, livestock and domestic animals. Hunting should keep pack sizes smaller, remove bold wolves, and limit the number of wolves living near people all of which will reduce conflicts and ease public tensions.
"The proven model for success in these potential high conflict zones is state led management with public harvest," Bangs says. "The North American Model is the most successful model of wildlife conservation in the whole world."
Ray Rugg, the outfitter from Superior, thinks an open hunt will make hunters much more acceptant of wolves "because they will feel they have a hand in controlling them."
Hunts are already underway in Wyoming where, except for in the northwest corner of the state surrounding Yellowstone National Park, wolves are classified not as a trophy game animal but as a predator that can be shot on sight year round without a license. Hunters have killed at least 10 wolves since March 28th.
One dead wolf recently arrived at Chris Christy's family taxidermy shop in Alpine, Wyo., its coat destined to become a rug.
What struck Christy about the hide was its hugeness. "Really large," she says.
Her husband Dave, who is six feet tall, skinned the wolf and held up the pelt by the hind legs.
"The nose was touching the ground," Christy exclaims. "All I could see were the top two inches of his baseball cap."
Rocky Mountain Taxidermy specializes in full body mounts of big game like elk, deer and pronghorn. Like other area taxidermists, the Christys expect to expand their services to include wolf mounts.
"From the sound of it, I'm sure they'll be coming in," Christy says.