A light drizzle soaks my saddle, rifle scabbard, and horse as we ride silently up a main trail connecting the Salmon River to the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Today’s rain is a blessing, as sodden underbrush muffles our movement through summer’s parched vegetation in this heavily timbered landscape.
Our destination is a side trail leading to an old burn, where we plan to tie up the horses at the windfall-blocked trail and continue on foot. But just as we dismount, the full-throated howl of a lone wolf pierces the dismal day. Nothing on Earth sounds quite as wild as that keening cry, starting low and deep-chested before rising to a high note that lingers hauntingly in the air.
There will be no elk hunting here for us today.
Despite publicity about the 1995 wolf reintroduction into central Idaho, my husband saw evidence of a small number of wolves in the Frank Church Wilderness decades before that date. Never a robust population, he occasionally saw tracks or stumbled upon what was clearly a wolf kill. With the 1995 reintroduction, wolves quickly became a growing presence.
Now, instead of commanding the role of top predator, humans are sharing it with another hunter. We have high-powered rifles and scopes, but wolves have an intimate knowledge of their home ground and a foot-speed we can’t match.
I was reminded of that difference several years ago while leading two horses to meet my husband and a friend in a meadow six miles from camp. It snowed four inches the night before, enough to preserve the huge tracks of a single wolf as it followed the trail I was riding. As I rode along, I wondered who would be successful; the two- or four-legged hunters.
Hunters typically strive to kill the biggest and best animals. I hate to equate hunting to ranching, but I’ve often wondered what rancher in his right mind would kill off his best breeding bull each year or keep old cows that are reproductively inefficient. But every year, elk hunters start out with the goal of killing prime bull elk. I have been one of those hunters.
The Bull or the Cow
Although I’ve killed spikes, meat is my primary goal in hunting, and young animals simply don’t have as much of it as an older animal. Once, when it was allowed in the Frank, I gladly killed a cow. But, when shooting a cow, you can’t tell old from young: with a bull you always know.
The cow I shot was young, so instead of helping herd health by culling an older female, I shot an animal in her breeding prime. For the past few years, I’ve hunted in the unit nearest my home, and I typically draw a cow tag. I’m ok with that as there is an abundance of cows and far fewer bulls, not from wolves but from hunting pressure. Several wolf packs also roam the unit, but I have yet to see a discernible impact on elk from them as my husband and I continue to fill our tags.
Wildlife researchers say wolf packs are constantly testing an elk herd, looking for signs of weakness usually in old, young, or injured animals. There’s a delicate dance of life and death with wolves and elk as preordained partners. But elk quickly adapt to predation, changing their behavior to survive.
Adapting Behaviors for Survival
Years ago, we heard bugling day and night as the rut turned hot and heavy. At night, the quiet chirping of cows would awaken us as they grazed in the meadow where we camped. That behavior has changed with the advent of wolves. We seldom hear bulls bugle in open country now, and cows no longer come to the meadow each night. In order to successfully kill elk, our strategies have changed, too.
We now carefully limit our presence in elk country before season. The elk are still there, but they’re more cautious and move at the slightest provocation. Spooking a herd from a potential hunting area is a luxury we can no longer afford.
Before wolves, we could count on a bull responding to our bugle in the early season rifle hunt in the Frank Church Wilderness. But wolves have learned that a bugle means elk meat, and elk, in turn, have learned to stay as quiet as possible.
When a bull does answer, it’s almost always at close range with barely enough time to take a shot. So, we are far more alert to the slightest movement or sound. Now, more bulls ghost in silently, appearing and disappearing like apparitions. Often, it’s only the faint thump of a hoof that alerts us to its presence.
Habitats and Range
Wolves often run down prey on open ground, meaning some of our favorite hunting spots—meadows and open ridges—come up empty now. The elk are hanging out in steep river breaks where rock bluffs and heavy timber hinder wolf packs from converging on a single animal. So, we’ve had to learn new country.
Successful elk hunting has always been dependent upon an intimate knowledge of the land. We’ve always had to know where wallows are, where burns sprout fresh green grass, and where dark spruce bogs offer security and coolness on hot days. But now we have to factor in where steep, rugged land crisscrossed with windfalls gives elk protection from wolves.
It’s been a challenge but I neither hate nor love wolves. They are simply another animal on the landscape. And, I support hunting them when the biological data calls for reducing numbers. But their presence has sharpened my hunting skills and required me to think strategically.
Perhaps more than that, it’s given me a new appreciation of my love for elk hunting in big, wild country. Before wolves became abundant, I’d begun to expect to fill my elk tag each year. And though it still felt like a gift, when a gift is expected, it begins to lose its magic.
Today, when I kill an elk, the full measure of that gift has returned.
That day, as we turned our horses back toward camp after relinquishing the field to the other hunter, I reminded myself that gifts often come from the most unexpected sources. Certainly, that’s the case with a wolf at the door. ISI