By: Elliott D. Woods
Twenty years after wolves were reintroduced in the Northern Rockies, many politicians would still love to see them eradicated, and hunters and ranchers are allowed to kill them by the hundreds. But the animals are not only surviving—they’re thriving, and expanding their range at a steady clip. For the people who live on the wild edges of wolf country, their presence can be magical and maddening at once.
The switchbacks on the old logging road still held two-foot-deep patches of snow in late March, when we set off on four-wheelers to scout for wolf tracks in the Boise National Forest, north of Garden Valley, Idaho. The riding was easy lower down, where the hardpack traced the course of a snowmelt-swollen stream through a tight canyon. Spiny rock towers rose from the banks, disintegrating into forbidding walls of scree and timber. If you were an elk or a deer, it would be a tempting place to come for a drink, but you’d be taking your life in your hands. Wolves love a terrain trap.
As we climbed, our engines strained against the grade, mud, and snow. We were headed to a vantage point above a place called Granite Basin, where we could scan hundreds of acres of forest with spotting scopes. Zeb Redden, a 35-year-old soldier based in Fort Carson, Colorado, carried his girlfriend, Joni, on the back of his ATV. Zeb had paid Deadwood Outfitters, owned by Tom and Dawn Carter, $3,500 for the weeklong wolf hunt. I was along as an unarmed observer.
Zeb’s tricked-out, AR-15-style rifle was tucked into a scabbard built into his backpack. A couple of days before, I’d watched him drop to the prone position, press his cheek onto the stock behind his scope, and put a 7.62-millimeter round on a bull’s-eye-painted rock 600 yards away. He was deadly at long range, but he said he probably wouldn’t take a first shot at anything farther out than about 500 yards.
“I’m shooting jacketed hollow-point boat-tails, and at that distance they’ll just go right through. They won’t open up like they’re supposed to,” he’d explained. “If he’s wounded and beyond 500, I’ll keep putting lead on him. But if it’s a first shot, I’d rather get in closer.” I wondered if adrenaline would change his mind if we actually saw a wolf.
Thirty-five-year-old Elijah Coley, our guide, halted on one of the switchbacks and pointed down at a patch of grimy snow, where we saw the unmistakable signature of a wolf paw. About four inches wide, a wolf’s track dwarfs that of a large dog. A little farther on we found another. The midday warmth melted the top layer of snow every afternoon, so we knew the tracks had to be fresh, probably from the night before, possibly from that very morning.
Elijah guessed that we were on the heels of a big black male wolf that he’d captured on a trail camera several weeks earlier. In the grainy images, two wolves are seen walking through scrub brush, their eyes glowing in the infrared flash. The black wolf, which probably weighed over 100 pounds, stood a hand taller than its mate, a two-and-a-half-year-old female whose collar data showed that it was whelped just up the road on Scott Mountain. It wasn’t exactly petite, either, weighing 90 pounds.
There’s a photo of this female on Deadwood’s website now, under a tab that advertises wolf hunts, because it was subsequently killed by Tom and Dawn’s son-in-law, Joe Woodcock, who dropped it from 600 yards. In the image, the wolf looks enormous in its thick winter coat, its forelimbs dangling over Woodcock’s arms as he holds it.
We rumbled up to the overlook above Granite Basin and settled in for a couple of hours of glassing. Elijah spotted a big bull elk resting in a draw about a thousand yards away and noted its impressive antlers. A logger by trade, Elijah goes “shed hunting” every spring to earn extra cash. Wholesalers pay a few bucks a pound for dropped antlers, which might end up on the medicinal market in China, next to powdered rhino horn and elephant tusk. Decorative-furniture makers pay as much as $600 for a matching pair from a trophy bull like the one we were watching. But the elk’s calm attitude suggested that the wolf we’d tracked up the hill was long gone. We soon left, too.
Zeb’s ATV crapped out on the way down. While Elijah rigged a tow rope, I stood with my hands in my pockets, wondering how the others felt about getting skunked.
“What would you do if that wolf came trotting around the corner right now?” I asked no one in particular.
“Shoot it in the face,” Zeb replied…
Read the full article: Outside Magazine