Rolling Stone


In Montana, the radical governor changed the rules of the annual hunt, endangerin­g a great rewilding success story


In february 2021, a black wolf wandered across the border of Yellowston­e National Park in Montana. Called 1155, he wore a radio collar that park biologists fit him with three years before. When he left the safety of the park, 1155 was what biologists call a “dispersed male,” leaving his pack to travel alone in search of a mate. As a descendant of wolves reintroduc­ed in 1995 to Yellowston­e and Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return wilderness, he was playing out a role in a success story three decades in the making: to ultimately restore wolves to their former range from which they’d been exterminat­ed.

The year before, scientific findings emerged from Yellowston­e on the impact of wolves’ return to the landscape. In their long absence, coyotes had run rampant and the elk population exploded, overgrazin­g the willow and aspen. Without those trees, songbirds declined, beavers no longer built dams, and streams began to erode. In turn, water temperatur­es were too high for cold-water fish. Upon wolves’ reintroduc­tion, in what’s called a trophic cascade, the elk population­s began falling immediatel­y. Within about 10 years, willows rebounded. In 20, aspen began flourishin­g. Riverbanks stabilized. Songbirds returned, as did beavers, eagles, foxes, and badgers. Wolf population­s in Montana and Idaho began to grow and slowly disperse to other parts of the Rockies and beyond. Media and conservati­onists heralded it as the greatest rewilding event in history. Not everyone out west agrees.

It’s unclear when, exactly, 1155 walked onto Robert E. Smith’s private ranch 10 miles north of the park. Director of the conservati­ve Sinclair Broadcasti­ng Group (the biggest

owner of television stations in the country), Smith is a major donor to Republican­s in the state, including giving thousands to newly elected Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte’s campaigns. Smith’s ranch is managed by Mike Lumley, vice president of the Montana Trapper’s Associatio­n, who was aiding Gianforte in his long quest to kill a wolf. The pair had set a trapline on Smith’s property, and 1155 walked right into it, triggering metal jaws to close on his foot and keep the wolf trapped.

It’s also unclear how long 1155 lay caught before Gianforte, presiding over the frenetic session of a citizen Legislatur­e that meets for a mere four months every two years (in Helena, a four-hour drive from Smith’s ranch) arrived to kill him. According to Montana law, trappers are required to check their traps at least every 48 hours to avoid leaving animals to suffer unnecessar­ily — a requiremen­t the governor would have been familiar with, had he taken the required certificat­ion course all hunters are legally bound to take before killing a wolf. Later, Gianforte would say that he was already in the area, although one Montana reporter speculated how serendipit­ous it was that after weeks of waiting, the governor happened to be nearby when a wolf wandered into his trap; that perhaps Lumley had discovered 1155 and called Gianforte to let him know this was his chance — although law also states that trapped animals must be killed or released immediatel­y upon finding them. Timeline aside, Gianforte shot 1155 — likely in the head to preserve the pelt for mounting — even though 1155 was radio-collared, and almost certainly knowing researcher­s have typically invested thousands of dollars in the animal for the purpose of scientific research

In Montana, violation of hunting rules can incur a fine of up to $500 and a stripping of hunting privileges. But the state’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) agency — overseen by the governor — handed Gianforte only a written warning for trapping 1155 without certificat­ion. The governor mostly stayed mum on the incident, until reporters ambushed him at a press conference, where Gianforte called the lack of certificat­ion a “slight misstep” and called the kill “a tremendous honor.”

“That he got off with just a warning was a slap in the face to all ethical sportsmen,” says Tim Roberts, who’s on the board of the Montana Wildlife Federation, a conservati­on organizati­on in the “radical middle” that advocates for managing wolves with a sense of responsibi­lity and fair chase. “Governor Gianforte already had it in his mind that he was going to annihilate wolves in Montana.”

(“States are responsibl­e for the welfare of the gray-wolf population,” a representa­tive for Gianforte tells Rolling Stone. “Montana is fulfilling its responsibi­lity by ensuring a healthy, sustainabl­e population of wolves well beyond recovery targets set by the U.S.

Fish and Wildlife Service, and will continue to manage wildlife wisely and judiciousl­y.”)

The episode opened the floodgates in a state where many people have elevated a long-standing hatred of wolves to dogma. For the first time since wolves were deemed recovered enough for the federal government to hand their management back to Montana in 2009, the all-red state Legislatur­e wasn’t reined in by a Democratic governor committed to managing wolves as wildlife, not vermin. Gianforte, a Trumpist Republican, is a wealthy creationis­t, best-known for body slamming a reporter on the eve of his 2017 election to Montana’s sole congressio­nal seat. He took office toting a questionab­le environmen­tal record, having sued his own state in 2009 to block longtime public access to the East Gallatin River from his Bozeman mansion. And he’d just shot a collared Yellowston­e wolf to show he would do what he pleased on the hunting issue, research and rules be damned.

GOP lawmakers took full opportunit­y to strike a heavy blow in the West’s centuryold wolf wars. By the end of the session, Gianforte had signed new laws that would extend the wolf-hunting season by several weeks; allow night hunting on private land with artificial lights, thermal-imaging tech, and night-vision scopes; neck snaring and the use of bait to hunt and trap; and increase the kill limit to 20 wolves per hunter.

And the kicker: Montana joined Idaho (which recently allocated $1 million for efforts that lawmakers there say could wipe out 1,300 of its estimated 1,500 wolves) in allowing monetary compensati­on to hunters for each wolf killed — what many call a bounty. Now, in the two states where American taxpayers spent $30 million to reintroduc­e wolves, anti-wolf organizati­ons are legally paying hunters to kill them. The assault threatens the West-wide recovery the U.S. began 30 years ago — all because wolves are a socially charged political football used to appease a certain electorate, with the actual science on their contributi­on to the natural world often left on the sidelines.

“There’s nothing normal about this,” says Jamie Rappaport Clark. Now executive director of Defenders of Wildlife, Clark led the reintroduc­tion of wolves to the area back in the 1990s as species director for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. “The numbers can’t sustain 20 wolves decimated per individual. It defies all logic. There is no other creature in this country that’s treated like wolves. It’s just reckless killing across the board.”

wolves once roamed the western part of the continent from the Arctic to Mexico, but they were hunted to eradicatio­n from the 1870s onward. More than any other predator, wolves were seen as a symbol of the untamed wild in the West, and the antithesis of civilizati­on: a danger to humans, a menace to ranchers, and competitio­n for big-game hunters. That narrative persists, although wolves very rarely attack people and kill only 0.04 percent of available livestock.

Although USFWS underwent the requisite public-comment period in the early Nineties, people here still characteri­ze the reintroduc­tion as if the federal government “brought wolves and dumped them in Yellowston­e Park basically overnight,” says Roberts. Many people versed on the issue believe social tolerance for wolves would be higher if the animals had continued their own, slower, dispersal down from Canada that was already in progress, instead of the agency dropping them in the middle of sagebrush-rebellion country, where private-property rights reign supreme and a significan­t portion of people don’t trust the federal government.

“There was never an educationa­l effort to say ‘This is why wolves could be good,’ ” says Roberts. “And as wolves expanded, you’ve got conservati­ve ranchers and sportsmen who felt like they had no say in their management, and the hatred just grew.”

Roberts, a longtime traditiona­l bowhunter who lives in Fort Benton, describes himself as an independen­t with conservati­ve leanings. He sees the expanded wolf hunt as “political bullshit” that panders to the rich landowners and outfitters profiting off elk hunts who backed Gianforte’s run for governor. It’s also a tit-for-tat system based mostly on revenge. “‘You crammed it down our throat back then, so we’ll cram it down yours now,’ ” he says. “If you make predators and agencies the boogeymen . . . well, hatred’s easier to practice than education and calm.”

If leveraging fear-based perspectiv­e for political gain sounds familiar, it should. “It’s a lot of what Trump does in drumming up the base,” says Dan Vermillion, a fly-fishing outfitter in Livingston who sat on the Fish and Wildlife Commission for 12 years, from the time wolves were delisted and Montana first allowed a hunt through 2018. He saw a lot of rancor dissipate over those years, as hunters felt they were part of the management strategy and the state set up programs to reimburse ranchers for lost livestock.

But this is where wedge issues can come in handy politicall­y. Once a proudly purple state, Montana swung red for many of the same reasons as the rest of the country: in part due to the perception in rural America that the Democratic Party is disconnect­ed from low- and middle-income and nonurban people, and — in a state where more than three in five people identify as hunters — out of growing fear that liberals will infringe on Second Amendment rights.

“Hunters, for years, get all spun up on Second Amendment issues, and they give the Republican Party a fair bit of latitude on wildlife issues, because they feel more

“As wolves expanded, ranchers and sportsmen felt like they had no say in their management, and the hatred just grew.”

strongly about the Second Amendment,” Vermillion says. “The governor and Legislatur­e are listening to a small but vocal minority when they make these decisions on wolves, and there are a lot of other Republican­s who aren’t going to stand up on it because it doesn’t really matter to them.”

Outside of the core wolf population­s in the Northern Rockies (Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota all have sizable numbers; Washington has an estimated 132 wolves, Oregon 173, California fewer than 20), wolves were still protected under the Endangered Species Act until the Trump administra­tion delisted them in 2020. A federal judge reinstated their protection­s on Feb. 10. But that ruling doesn’t apply to Montana or Idaho, raising the question: What would it take to trigger relisting here? Wiping out 1,300 of Idaho’s wolves? Losing more than 20 percent of Yellowston­e’s population?

the man known as the god of wolf trapping sits across from me in a cafe in Plains, a rural town of less than 1,200 people set on the banks of the Clark Fork River. Dan Helterline, 55 years old, with a bushy beard going to slate and kind eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses, grew up here, like the three generation­s of his family before him. He taught himself to trap muskrat and fox in the surroundin­g Lolo National Forest, becoming a hunting and trapping guide for half the year and smoke jumping (a firefighte­r who parachutes into wildfires) for the Forest Service in the summers. He retired from smoke jumping seven years ago, after breaking his hip on a landing, and turned to wolf trapping full time, both on his own and taking people on guided trapping adventures. His god status in the small trapping community comes from the fact that he laid the foundation­s for the practice in Montana from the first legal hunt after delisting, and he maxes out his limit every year — or did, back when the limit was five wolves per person. This season, even the god has caught only four wolves.

“No one is going to get 20 wolves,” he says. “I bet no one even gets 10. Yes, they’ve passed all these mechanisms to give people more tools, but they’re not going to tenfoldinc­rease the take of wolves.”

Montana’s forest floors aren’t running red with canid blood because wolves are so hard to hunt, Helterline explains. Wolves are smart, secretive, and travel long distances over large territorie­s. Setting traps for them requires an immense amount of knowledge of their movements and behavior, which in turn requires significan­t time in the woods studying tracks and signs.

“People think that trapping is so unethical, so unfair. But a trap pan is five square inches, and a wolf has a territory of hundreds of square miles. So you tell me how it’s unethical trying to get an animal that might come through your area once a month to step into a five-inch pan. The thing about ethics, there’s a wide spectrum of them. They’re not black-and-white, everyone has their own — like opinions, or religion. That’s why it’s hard to enforce laws on ethics.”

Like many hunters and trappers, Helterline sees the harvest as a form of wildlife management. In fact, because trappers spend so much time on the ground, they’re often the ones informing biologists on numbers of species in certain regions and advocating for the complicate­d regulation­s on management and conservati­on. Helterline talks about how in the years between reintroduc­tion and delisting he saw game zeroed out here as the wolf population boomed. Now that the hunt keeps wolf numbers down, he sees more moose in the Lolo than he’s seen in 10 years. “Without management, the population control is starvation, or disease. And people think that’s humane. Have you ever seen a dog die of mange? It’s ugly.”

Helterline doesn’t hate wolves, he says before we part — far from it. He thinks they’re incredible animals that are here to stay, and remembers with awe the time he saw a pack of 12 in the Selway wilderness (outside of his traps, he’s only ever seen one other wolf in the wild in all his time in the mountains). But there are people who do hate them, he says — there are extremes on both sides.

it takes a lot of effort, funding, and time to collar a wolf, wildlife biologist Sarah Sells tells me. We’re sitting in the Missoula office of the Montana Cooperativ­e Wildlife Research Unit. Sells lives and conducts research in nearby Flathead. Her Ph.D. work helped develop the modeling that FWP uses to estimate the state’s wolf population, and she tells me about one memorable field stint.

Her team had traveled 21 miles into the Bob Marshall, a wilderness area southeast of Glacier. Horses were packed in the heavy gear of foot traps (pressure-based traps meant to capture an animal without injury, much like what Helterline uses — Sells has put her own hand in one to test that there’s no pain when it springs), collars, and other equipment. The wolves knew they were there, she says, but immense care was taken to seek out areas far from the cabin the team stayed in and conceal traps. Sells set one in a clearing. The next morning, a female wolf lay caught in it. The team collared her to track her movements and released her. Over the next two days, the team caught no other wolves. On the last night, the pack came to the cabin and howled, and on the last morning, the team went out to collect the traps to find each flipped over unsprung.

“It was like a wolf telling us to get out,” she says. “And we could see the movements of the one we’d just collared — she followed us 10 miles down the trail, as if escorting us out of there. It was really special.”

It takes time to get data from a collar that researcher­s can actually use, Sells explains. But a year after Sells collared her, the wolf from the Bob Marshall was killed. “It’s just unfortunat­e when you don’t get enough data, in particular for this purpose of modeling numbers. I mean, that was a couple of weeks of effort from several people.”

The loss of collared wolves from hunting and other mortality events is one of the reasons the state moved away from that kind of research. Boyd says a significan­t portion of wolves collared in her last year at FWP were also killed that same year.

She points out that using the fairy-tale success story of Yellowston­e’s ecosystem recovery to apply to statewide management is problemati­c, because trophic cascades aren’t such tidy stories; they’re huge and complicate­d. And the park is an isolated ecosystem — people aren’t living with wolves. “I’m not against controllin­g some number of wolves to keep the population happy,” Sells says. “But what’s going on? It’s just a slaughter.”

Most Montanans I’ve spoken to agree. But in this kind of political atmosphere, it will take courage from leadership to change wolves’ fate — or a change in leadership altogether in voting Gianforte out of office. “He doesn’t understand — nor appreciate — the true intrinsic value of what Montana has had, and what it could have in the future, under the right leadership,” says Roberts.

Montana’s history runs far deeper as a purple state than a crimson one, and thanks to citizens standing up to wealthy magnates and corrupt politician­s bent on exploiting the land in the past, it enjoys gold-standard public lands and stream access, and a rare constituti­onal right to a clean and healthful environmen­t. Montanans could still surprise the country on this issue as well.

“Our wildlife shouldn’t be a political debate,” says Defenders of Wildlife’s Clark. “It’s not Republican or Democrat. It’s what we do as Americans. It’s what we do as citizens for our next generation.”

“I’m not against controllin­g some number of wolves to keep the population happy. But what’s going on? It’s just a slaughter.”

 ?? ?? Wolves were reintroduc­ed to Yellowston­e in the Nineties and thrived — altering every aspect of the environmen­t for the better.
Wolves were reintroduc­ed to Yellowston­e in the Nineties and thrived — altering every aspect of the environmen­t for the better.
 ?? ?? Trapper Dan
Helterline says wolves are incredible,
but without the hunt, the animals suffer from “starvation
and disease.”
Trapper Dan Helterline says wolves are incredible, but without the hunt, the animals suffer from “starvation and disease.”

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