Ovando hunter Greg Gilchrist doesn't plan to shoot a wolf this year, but he's got a license for one in his pocket.
"A lot of people I know are buying a wolf tag as a $19 protest vote, to ensure some management would be going on," the Lake Upsata Outfitters owner said a few days before Sunday's big-game season opening day. "I don't know anybody who plans to go out and hunt wolves. But 100 percent of the people I know will go out and do their thing, and they have a wolf tag in their pocket. If they see one, they might throw a shot at one."
During his early season hunts in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, Gilchrist said his camp was frequently ringed by wolf tracks. But none of his client hunters ever saw a wolf to shoot. They did find a reasonable number of deer and elk.
As of Friday, 12,898 people had paid for the chance to participate in Montana's experiment in state-level wolf management. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed Montana and Idaho wolves from federal Endangered Species Act protection in April, handing control over to state wildlife officials. Wyoming's wolves remain under federal supervision.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks commissioners authorized a 75-wolf quota for this year, based on an estimated total population of 500 wolves in the state. The season got a trial run in four backcountry hunting districts: three in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and one in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.
"What we learned in the backcountry is when there are elk hunters in the backcountry, they will detect wolves," FWP wolf program coordinator Carolyn Sime said. "But the nine wolves that were harvested in the Beartooth proceeded faster than many would have expected."
Those nine wolves made up three-quarters of the 12-wolf limit for Wolf Management Unit 3, which covers most of southern Montana. Three were shot in the Bob Marshall where Gilchrist was hunting. That's now folded into Wolf Management Unit 1, which covers northern Montana above Missoula, Butte, Great Falls and Lewistown. The remaining quota there is 40. Wolf Management Unit 2 includes the southwestern corner of the state, below Missoula and west of Interstate 15. Its quota is 22 wolves.
The idea of predator hunting predator has raised many questions and rumors about possible encounters with wolves. Sime said most of them seem grown out of "Little Red Riding Hood" rather than biology texts.
"Hunters should not be afraid of wolves when they're out hunting," Sime said. "They are curious, observational learners. Their tendency is to check you out, but they really want nothing to do with you. They may pause and stare at you, but they're not looking at you like food, not gearing up to attack you."
That's different from bears and mountain lions, which follow very different tendencies. Lions may stalk and on rare occasions attack humans.
Bears seek out carcasses and gut piles and will aggressively defend them from hunters. Last week's temporary closure of the Aunt Molly Wildlife Management Area near Ovando was sparked by the considerable success of bowhunters, whose kills attracted a dozen grizzly bears to the 1,184-acre reserve.