Elk NetworkTo Kill a Wolf

Conservation | January 1, 2016

To Kill a Wolf

by Jake Mosher

With daylight still close to an hour away, I stood in some of the wildest country in America and felt my blood quicken at the sound of far-off howling.

There is a quiet that comes with the end of Montana’s elk season unlike anything I’ve experienced, save perhaps an empty baseball field after nine nighttime innings when all the fans have gone and the lights have been turned off. The tangible, electric urgency that’s filled the air for five weeks evaporates, leaving a sense of sadness and exhaustion, though not without a certain peace. Late fall slips overnight into winter, the wilderness transforms from a land of possibility to a snowbound country of short days and desolation, and the hunt fades to faint scents of gun oil, summer sausage and boot grease.

In some ways, I feel out of place at this empty trailhead an hour and a half before daylight more than a week after the last shots at elk have died to echoes. Three inches of fresh snow has fallen to begin cleansing the slate, hiding the tracks of hunter and hunted, wiping clean all records for another year. It’s below zero with an oppressive silence that makes me whistle softly to myself as I run through a mental checklist of gear in my pack, slide my rifle down into its padded scabbard, and shoulder a load that, through miles of carry, has developed a comforting weight. There’s plenty of moon behind me as I begin hiking east, soft steps pushing toward a distant basin where the sun and I will arrive at the same time.

Two hundred yards from my truck, I cross an ice-bound stream on a footbridge made of tight‑fitting lodgepole laid between a pair of larger fir logs. A lion has walked its length some hours before me, its tracks frosted but free of snow. I pause where he turned into the trees, his trail disappearing under a squat spruce, and wonder how far away he is now. The running deer tracks I encounter 10 minutes later say I haven’t put much distance between us, or at least still follow closely in the direction he traveled. A few steps farther bring me to his track again, paralleling the deer, headed up a south slope of sage toward a starry skyline. Good hunting, I think as I lean into the trail where it begins climbing, my lungs working to pull frigid air into my chest, my legs shucking off the stiffness that comes with driving.

I put a quiet mile behind me in 20 minutes, pressing on toward a horizon that does not betray any sign of the coming day. Elk have fed through here, circular depressions cleared of snow with sharp hooves searching for grass. Above me, where a bald knob arcs north, I pick them out—dark shapes standing close together. Cows and calves, I think. Not spread out the way bulls would be. If they see me—and I’m sure they do—some realization that the time of danger for them has passed prevents them from bolting. The earth rolls, the path bends and they’re gone.

The trail splits at a thick wooden post another mile ahead. The hard-packed half-pipe where horses dragged elk forks right and I bear left, my feet sliding in grainy snow without a base. I stop to tighten the waist belt on my pack, feeling its weight shift from my shoulders to my hips, allowing my chest to expand more easily. It’s getting steep and despite wearing only a turtleneck and light sweatshirt I’m in danger of sweating. I slow down and cut the length of my strides.

There are more elk tracks here, purple, wide‑spaced dents in the snow trending north toward distant winter range. These are the bulls, I think, doing what they’ve done for eons. I imagine them in the timber, great bodies the color of faded wheatgrass, antlers rocking to miss limbs, heads turning to the wind as they follow ancient trails. We stop together and listen. On the edge of earshot, from a densely timbered bowl whose eastern rim divides two of Montana’s big river systems, comes a hollow noise like wind in a chimney. It rises and falls, far away and yet somehow saturating the night with unmistakable power. For the first time this morning, I focus entirely on why I’m here.

The first wolf I ever saw stood as high as a New England whitetail and had a chunk of caribou meat in its jaws the size of a volleyball. My father and I had crested a Labrador river bank and come face to face with it in the semi-tundra scrub of blueberry bushes, low, bake-apple plants and stunted black spruce trees. Our eyes met for a couple of seconds and then it loped away with its lunch, leaving me about as excited as a teenager can get in the outdoors. It was pure wildness: the embodiment of legends and fairytales from Little Red Riding Hood to a scene I’ll never forget my father reading to me from Willa Cather’s My Antonia in which a Russian, horse‑drawn wedding party is pursued by wolves and throws people off the sleigh—including both bride and groom—to prevent being overtaken. It was a big reason our ancestors cherished fire, learned to affix chipped, flint points to sticks, and probably never slept terribly well.

I remember just as vividly the first wolf I saw 10 years later and 3,000 miles away in southwest Montana. I was hunting migrating elk in late November near Yellowstone Park, working my way through dog-hair pine along the track of a solitary bull, in a losing race against the enveloping darkness that would soon call a complete halt to the chase. The track skirted a few acres of blowdown, evidence of a microburst or tornado or some other form of nature’s omnipotence, and standing in its midst on top of a shattered fir was a coal black wolf. It reacted much as its Canadian cousin had, departing with an air of indifference, leaving me with the same heart-pounding feeling that I’d just encountered one of the animals that make the woods a truly separate place from where I live.

In the years since, I’ve seen other wolves in Montana, though always more of their sign than the animals themselves. I’ve seen elk herds undeniably impacted—the brutally stark reality of how few calves I see that should be fueling healthy future herds—though I’ve never believed their reduced numbers were solely a result of wolves.

I have wanted to hunt wolves for the strictly personal reason that more than perhaps anything else, I am a hunter. From the time I would steal steak knives from my mother’s dishpan to take into the woods and throw at grouse, to my investment of thousands of dollars in precision rifles and optics, I’ve been drawn to hunting with a gravity I could no more deny than my own name. It’s simply who I am, and why, in early December 2011, with daylight still close to an hour away, I stood in some of the wildest country in America and felt my blood quicken at the sound of far-off howling.

I continue listening long after the last howls have washed over me, holding my breath without realizing it, gasping air when I begin breathing again. I want to cover two more miles before sunrise, and I won’t do it standing still. My feet dig into the slope, the muscles in my legs protesting with tightness. I’m going to sweat, then I’m going to be cold, and that’s hunting in the Rocky Mountains in December. I smile.

Forty minutes later, the eastern sky looks different. Not light yet, but out of focus. Even the brightest stars show up better now when I don’t look directly at them, and the snow around me is losing its luminescence. The whale-back ridge of sage I’m climbing seems to grow in proportion to my steps, the tufts of ragged fir I use as markers of my progress never moving closer. I look down, cinch my waist belt again and drive forward. I count steps, then intentionally lose track. I breathe through my nose, then through my mouth, then through both, still unable to get all the oxygen my body craves. Then I reach the top of the ridge and a game trail heading east toward the dark mountain where I heard the wolves beneath a band of silver in the sky.

The snow is crusted where I kick through it to the ground and sit down. My parka is cold to the touch inside my pack and goes on stiffly. I lean my rifle against the limb of the small fir beside me and pull my balaclava over my face, a thin fleece barrier between my skin and the air I know is going to begin feeling colder.

I’m looking down into a basin more than a mile across, waiting until my face has cooled sufficiently to prevent my binoculars from fogging before I look through them. Snow clings in icy clumps to my wool pants, and my breath steams two feet in front of my face. I shiver as much from excitement as cold, and draw my legs toward my chest.

Antlers have a unique, unmistakable sound when they clash, but the noise is so out of place in December, long after the elk rut and bull battles have ended, that I don’t recognize it. For an instant, I imagine someone breaking dry branches for a fire, but then I spot the bulls less than 200 yards from me, shoving each other back and forth along a wisp of willows that traces the source of a frozen seep.

In my binoculars, I see they’re both six‑points. Three and a half year-olds with good genetics, they’re sparring in earnest, in preparation I think for a future still some years away when at least one of them will claim a harem. They are evenly matched, neither one intent on really hurting the other, but like 12-year-old brothers who wad up socks to use as boxing gloves, there’s something to be proven here.

I lose myself in watching them, unaware of the passage of time or that there’s more to the world than the field of view in my Swedish glass where these elk continue to wrestle for a dominance that, once established, may go unchallenged for a long time. They posture with tilted heads and billowing breath, a subtle gesture from one—a wink, I imagine—causing the other to charge and antlers to lock with force beyond my comprehension. They collide, separate, and slam together again and again until the earth around them is dotted with uplifted clumps of frozen sod and both their bodies heave with the exertion of breathing. Then a wolf howls, heralding an end to the fray, the rise of the sun, and a reminder that I haven’t come here to watch elk.

The long, drawn-out call has the ubiquitous property of a bugle in the timber. I whirl around and look behind me, then off to the side, then, as it comes again, straight across the basin into the sun and steep finger ridges trailing down from a headwall of solid rock. The howls continue to come, even-spaced and loud, a top-of-the-food-chain predator singing to the dawn of another day. I pick it out by shape, sitting out of place in a sliver of open ground, its head tipping up a full two seconds before I hear the howl.

I’ve got a predator call hanging on a lanyard around my neck, but the wolf is a mile and a half away and I decide to close some distance before I make any noise. I’ll need to drop down the hill I’m sitting on at least to where the bulls were—they’re gone now, fleeing together away from the common enemy that’s united them—before I’m out of sight of the wolf. I dip forward when I walk, bending my legs to give a hunched silhouette, deliberately not taking a straight line, moving as little like a predator as I can until I hit the willows and a crease in the basin that will hide my approach.

The howls continue as I begin a half-mile uphill at a jog with vague memories of running on inclined treadmills and rubbery legs after a workout on a stair climber. I’m going to pull this hill to where it rounds and I can see the wolf again without stopping regardless of pain. In five minutes, there’s plenty of that, my lungs burning and an ache in my left knee where an ACL once was attached. The wolf stops howling and I imagine it sliding into the timber where it might or might not come to a call, likely gone for all times, a vision that spurs me onward through what is quickly becoming intense discomfort. I slow as I reach the top of the hill, dropping to my knees behind snow-capped sage, taking in the 7-power view of where the wolf was for two seconds before my binoculars fog.

It’s lying down now, front paws stretched before it, head resting on them sleeping in the sun. I wipe my bino lenses, press the ranging button, watch the reticle illuminate, release the button, and read the numbers: 1,150 yards. Too far. It’s mostly open ground between us now, and once more I think about calling and decide again against it. There is a ripple in the sage where the ground falls before rising toward the headwall, and if I can make it to that point I might cut the distance in half and edge within range.

I duck walk, then crawl on my hands and knees, three times noticing the wolf swivel its head. Like deer I’ve seen bed down under my tree stands, the wolf seems to never fall fully asleep. For the final 15 minutes of the stalk, I crawl on my belly across ground broken only by grass grown tall during our wet spring.

Everything in the mountains looks different from a distance. Even from the best vantage points, an awful lot stays hidden an awful lot of the time. Arriving at the spot I chose to rerange the wolf, I realize there’s a canyon between us, steep and deep, and that the ground where I’m lying already dips sharply toward the tops of spruce trees far below. The wolf hasn’t moved, but if I drop out of sight from here I’d have to get within a very few yards of it before I could see it again. Impossible. The snow is too crusted and crunchy. I slide my pack off, careful to keep my rifle barrel clear of snow, ease into a sitting position, center the wolf in my binoculars and read the range. There’s no breeze, and I can make this shot.

I have a long-legged bipod in my pack that will allow me to level my rifle on this slope from the prone position. I screw it tight to the gun, extend it all the way, and jam its feet through the snow to solid earth. I read my up-clicks at this distance from a laminated card and adjust my scope, each click worth a centimeter at a hundred meters. I give an additional click to compensate for a colder temperature than I built my chart around, gently chamber a round, and begin consciously slowing my heart as I remove my right glove. The wolf is lying broadside to me on a steep enough hill to give me a good view of its vitals. On 14 power it is crystal clear and huge in the scope.

The world fades and funnels as it did when I watched the bulls earlier. My sight picture remains unchanged when I work the safety, my vision bored into the intersection of my crosshairs and the tiniest vibration they show as my heart beats. I howl softly, careful to keep my mouth pointed away from the scope. The wolf reacts instantly. It doesn’t stand, but its head swings up and looks directly at my position, a great ruff of fur around its neck giving it a square appearance. My heart beats once, then twice, and I don’t squeeze or pull, I simply press the trigger. It breaks perfectly at 16 ounces. Bullet on the way.

I have heard that some people who have near‑death experiences see their lives flash before their eyes. I’ve never had that happen, though there have been a few times when, in the fractions of a second one of my bullets remains in flight, I’ve been inundated with memories from past hunts. Or maybe memories isn’t the right word. Maybe emotions is closer. They aren’t so much complete scenes as a melding of days and places and a sense that many of my happiest days have been spent in the wilderness. In the time it took my bullet to cross the canyon, my head swam in snapshots of far-off hardwoods with the bright blood of a buck on their fallen leaves, the explosion of grouse wings amid the scent of ripe, wild apples, a sideways torrent of sleet cutting against the black hair of a downed moose, and the elk tracks I’d seen in the dark that morning. Somewhere between them and the recoil of my rifle, I saw the wolf vanish into timber 10 feet from where it lay, thought my shot sounded too quiet, then sat in limbo between the past and present, between celebration and a crushing defeat, as the sun rose higher, the day grew brighter, and all around the snow sparkled.

I leave the spent cartridge in the chamber but don’t put the rifle back in my pack. Instead, I carry it on its sling down to the bottom of the canyon then upstream along a tiny trickle of water flowing over opaque ice and trapped beargrass. I move slower than I have all day, my senses not as sharp as they should be. Ahead, bounding tracks in the snow slow my pace even more. I dread the possibility that they mark a running wolf and realize how badly I want that animal. I inch up to them and see they’re neither wolf nor fresh. Some days ago a mule deer bounced through here, its tracks beneath the protection of fir limbs not yet drifted in.

I continue up and around the opening where the wolf had lain, several hundred yards from the spot I last saw it, picking my way to the top of the headwall before turning. It takes an hour of careful walking before I reach my own boot prints in the bottom of the canyon, crossing in just one place a single set of wolf tracks where it turned up the hill toward where it napped. I retrace my steps and follow them to its bed, melted smooth. My bullet has dug a furrow through the ground directly behind the bed, and a single ruby drop of blood lies in the snow.

I’m trembling. My eyes rise from the bullet strike to the nearby timberline and disturbed snow. I walk 10 feet and look farther. More snow disruption where the wolf leapt ahead. I stare at the spot and then downhill a few feet to where the wolf lies against the thick bark of a centuries-old fir, hit perfectly, dead‑zero through the lungs.

For the first time since I followed a short blood trail to a dead buck on a rainy November day two and a half decades ago, there is something magical about the moment. I’m almost 40 years old and can’t keep my hands from shaking and am smiling, uncharacteristically and uncontrollably. Damn, this thing is big. And beautiful. I run my fingers through silver, black-tipped fur with guard hairs 4 inches long toward a broad forehead with a bluish hint like distant snow at last light.

My adrenaline is largely gone by the time I rise and pull the wolf toward sunlight at the edge of trees near where it slept so I can get a few pictures before I begin skinning. I slip and fall, land hard, then fall again trying to stand up. The muscles in my legs are beginning to cramp, but in time I feel the sun on my face and am able to stop dragging. I can see more than 20 miles to the west, into mountains I know intimately, and twice that far to the south where Idaho peaks meet the sky.

It isn’t until I position the wolf—a female—for pictures, with my camera balanced on my pack, that I realize she’s completely missing her left eye, a wound healed long ago. I study the scar tissue and feel something that isn’t sadness or regret but at the very least is a deep respect. My shutter clicks and shadows grow.

I don’t want this day or this hunt to end. Not ever. I coax a small fire to life and take my time skinning, stopping to look around, warm my hands, and imprint everything on permanent memory. But like the bull tracks I saw headed for winter range, this day and I are headed somewhere, too. There’s no stopping it, and far too soon my pack is loaded and I’m walking downhill.
I stop below the knob where I saw the cows and calves in the dark and turn to the east once, the opening where I killed the wolf gone from view, though I can still see the headwall above it. Above that the sky is a deep blue, and above that, directly over me, a lighter shade hard to define. An eagle cuts through my vision and I don’t look back again.


Jake Mosher lives in southwest Montana where he’s worked as a logger, novelist, big-game guide and blasting superintendent for a coal mine.