KALISPELL - Two Flathead Valley hunters say a pack of wolves surrounded them in the woods Saturday while they attempted to retrieve a quartered bull elk, forcing them to shoot and kill a wolf before fleeing.
Because wolves are classified as endangered, federal wildlife officials are investigating the incident and will determine if the shooting was justified. Neither man was injured during the confrontation, but officials will focus their investigation on the credibility of the hunters' stories and corroborating evidence at the site of the incident.
"Nobody got bit, but evidently they felt sufficiently threatened or intimidated to the point that they needed to defend themselves," said Jim Satterfield, regional supervisor for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "If a wild animal, a grizzly bear for example, or a mountain lion, attacks someone, our investigation usually doesn't focus on where the teeth marks are. We investigate the proximity of the animal to the person, and where in the animal's body it was shot."
"Obviously, a claim of self-defense is more believable if an animal is shot in the chest rather than in its rump," Satterfield continued. "But it's going to be up to the (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) to determine if the shooting was justified."
Satterfield said he could not comment on the specifics of the investigation because it was now a federal matter. Officials with USFWS were not available for comment Thursday.
A game warden who accompanied the men to the kill site Monday reported that multiple tracks confirmed that a pack of wolves had been present, said John Fraley, FWP spokesman for Region 1. The elk had been fed on by wolves and a grizzly bear, he said.
Mark Appleby, 49, of Columbia Falls, and Raymond Pitman, 27, of Whitefish, told their story to members of the media Thursday evening at a news conference, saying they feared for their lives. The men were introduced and accompanied by several vocal critics of federal wolf management who advocated removing Endangered Species Act protections and returning wolf management authority to the state of Montana.
"They were in a frenzy," Appleby said of the wolves. "They were howling. It was eerie."
He, too, spoke in favor of wolf hunts and delisting the animal, saying he has now seen wolves on three occasions and was outraged about being forced to abandon his elk.
"There's just too many wolves," Appleby said. "We've got to hunt them because it's just getting out of hand."
A veteran hunter of 30 years, Appleby said he shot the elk Friday, Oct. 29, in a drainage of the South Fork of the Flathead River. The next morning, he returned to the kill site with Pitman to retrieve the elk quarters. Both men rode horses and saw no evidence that wild animals had ravaged the meat, which Appleby packed with snow the previous day but did not suspend. He and Pitman say they saw a coyote track and a wolf track nearby, but no other signs of wildlife - a sweat-stained hat that Pitman left atop the quarters to deter wildlife was still in place, he said.
After making lunch and drawing the horses nearer to the meat to begin loading the elk quarters in a pannier, Appleby said his horse, named "Shotgun," spooked. When he turned around, he saw between six and eight wolves "running at us 30 to 40 yards away," according to a written statement he filed with FWP.
He and Pitman fired rounds from a rifle and a sidearm into the air to keep the wolves at bay, but the pack continued to howl, scaring the horses and forcing the men to abandon the meat.
As they trekked back out to their vehicle along Deep Creek Road, having abandoned the quarters, backstrap and tenderloin, the wolves followed the men.
"We got about 50 to 75 yards down the road when the wolves were howling right next to us on the side of the road," Appleby wrote in his statement. "I said, ‘The bastards are following us, maybe trying to kill us or the horses.' I told Raymond to shoot into the trees at them as we were trying to get away down the road. And that's what he did."
State Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, who has been an outspoken critic of federal wolf management, appeared with Appleby and Pitman during the news conference Thursday. He said legislation being proposed by U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., is the quickest means of wolf delisting.
"Federal law right now is pre-eminent," Tutvedt said. "The best legal remedy is for Rehberg to pass the bill so the wolf is no longer listed."
In what would be an unusual move, Rehberg's draft bill seeks to amend the Endangered Species Act to delist wolves in Idaho and Montana, giving the states "exclusive jurisdiction" over wolf management.
The reintroduction of the wolf in the northern Rocky Mountains has been extremely contentious, prompting another similar bill to be introduced by Montana Democratic Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester. If passed, that bill would delist wolves in Montana and Idaho, but only after the states' wolf management plans are approved by the secretary of interior.
"It's going to be a huge issue this legislative session," Tuvedt said.
Both Appleby and Pitman said they're certain they only escaped unharmed because they were carrying firearms and rode horses.
"God saved us this time, but those wolves are still out there," Pitman wrote in his statement. "I won't go into these woods without a sidearm ever again. Those wolves were not afraid of us at all. They were killers."
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached 1-800-366-7186 or at email@example.com.