Two men each illegally shot a gray wolf on private property from a helicopter in the Big Hole Valley near Wisdom in March.
The incident comes at a time when the state is grappling with controversy over wolf management. Gov. Greg Gianforte made national headlines in February by trapping and killing a wolf, and the Legislature has since passed several bills designed to increase the legal killing of the predators in the state, dramatically changing an enforcement system that some wildlife experts had seen as effectively balancing competing interests.
Dalton Thomas Tamcke, 30, and Justin Samuel Peterson, 22, did not possess wolf tags, nor did they have landowner permission to hunt on the property, the Mark Clemow Ranch, on March 3. Hunting wolves from a helicopter is illegal as well.
The two men claimed to be hunting coyotes for control action and that they mistook the wolves for coyotes. They later retrieved the carcasses on a snowmobile.
An aerial hunting of predatory animals permit can be obtained to hunt coyotes from the Montana Department of Livestock.
Based on information from someone in the area, Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks Game Wardens Regan Dean and Kerry Wahl arrived at a garage in the Big Hole where the wolf carcasses were being held two days later, seized the animals, questioned the men and issued citations.
Peterson, from Wisdom, and Tamcke, from Dillon, were charged with the unlawful take of non-game wildlife in need of management, failure to obtain landowner permission for hunting, and violation of commission or department orders or rules, which accounts for shooting the animal from an aircraft.
Peterson and Tamcke declined comment.
The wardens said the defendants were cooperative.
According to disposition reports from the Beaverhead County Justice Court, both men paid their fines: a total of $425 by Tamcke, and $435 by Peterson.
Neither was charged with the restitution cost of a gray wolf, $1,000, or forfeited their hunting privileges.
“We gave them breaks on that in reward for their cooperation," Wahl said.
Both Wahl and Dean said they routinely use their discretion to determine the extent of violations rather than automatically throwing the book at violators.
The defendants didn’t identify the helicopter pilot or company involved, Wahl said, and the wardens accepted that.
“They just kind of wanted to leave that guy out of it,” Wahl said. “Realistically, whether he knew they were wolves or not, I don't know. But we just decided to leave it to the guys that shot the wolves and left it at that.”
If the wardens had been told the pilot or company’s name, they likely would have contacted the operation, Wahl said, and possibly charged accountability.
“I just didn't find any real strong reason to go after the helicopter company or the pilot. Really, it was the shooters’ responsibility for what happened,” he said.
The private hunting of wolves or any game animal by helicopter is illegal in Montana.
“There really needs to be some fair chase — animals have to have at least some ability to escape. And to use aircraft to harvest game animals or even a species in need of management like wolves, it's not a means of fair chase hunting to use aircraft," Wahl said.
Wahl reported the defendants said they had the aerial permit to hunt coyotes, and the wardens didn’t pursue proof.
“I have no reason to believe they did not get it. They seemed familiar with that process,” Wahl said.
While the defendants were cooperative after FWP was tipped off, they had other plans for the wolves, Wahl said.
“The big concern I had with this case is there really wasn't going to be any intention to turn themselves in or let us know what happened. They did say they were just going to get them skinned and not report them. But anytime somebody shoots a wolf, they're required to be reported and tagged by us. They were not going to do that. They did say that," Wahl said.
Both Wahl and Dean expressed doubts the wolves had been shot accidentally.
“There is a big difference between a wolf and a coyote in terms of size. A wolf can be two and a half times the size of a coyote, maybe three times the size of a coyote. To me personally, I guess if you're going to be flying low to shoot coyotes you probably more than likely should be able to tell whether they were wolves or coyotes," Wahl said.
Dean said Peterson told him a shotgun and buckshot were used to kill the animals. Wahl said that weapon and ammunition are only effective at a distance of around 30 yards.
In the eyes of the law, the intention was irrelevant, Dean said.
“Anytime you shoot something, you're supposed to know your target and beyond. So it doesn't matter if they knew it was a wolf or a coyote. They're still supposed to know what they're shooting at. That's not an excuse," Dean said.
The wolves, an adult male and female, were put into the evidence freezer at the Dillon FWP office. Now that the cases are resolved, Wahl said they may be used for research or education programs.
A bloody equilibrium
Wolves are a charged issue in Montana, to say the least.
It’s been well publicized that Gov. Greg Gianforte received a warning for trapping a wolf on Feb. 15 without first taking the necessary class, and has also signed bills passed by a Republican majority to increase wolf kills in the state.
Wolves are dramatically more likely to be killed legally than illegally, especially by helicopter. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services often uses the method when it responds to wolves of concern to livestock operations. When a wolf is deemed a threat to livestock, action can be taken.
Speaking generally, and not about the Big Hole incident, Dean described the fate of a wolf that crosses that line.
“That wolf's gonna die. Is he gonna die legally or illegally? Either way he's gonna still die. You know, it's kind of sad to look at it that way, but Wildlife Services uses lethal control when wolves get in trouble,” Dean said.
In 2019, Wildlife Services confirmed that statewide 69 cattle and 21 sheep, two goats, two mini horses, and three livestock guard dogs were killed by wolves, according to FWP’s 2020 wolf conservation and management report.
In response, Wildlife Services killed 44 wolves in Montana that year, 29 of them from aircraft, according to the agency’s damage program reports. The FWP said in its report another 16 wolves were lawfully killed by private citizens when wolves were seen chasing, killing, or threatening to kill livestock. That’s a total of 59 documented wolf kills related to depredation in 2019.
That year the Montana Livestock Loss Board, largely funded by the state, paid $82,450 for livestock that were confirmed by Wildlife Services as killed by wolves or probable wolf kills, according to the FWP report.
The estimated wolf population is at about 1,200. In the 1980s, there were fewer than 10 wolves in the state, the FWP report says.
According to the USDA, Montana has about 2.5 million head of cattle currently. Wolves only impact the livestock in western Montana where they roam, especially in the far west.
Legal hunting and trapping have the the greatest impact to wolf numbers, and are used to manage the population.
According to the FWP report, 298 wolves were legally harvested in 2019, and license sales for the 2019/2020 season generated $414,738 for wolf monitoring and management. Additionally, eight wolves were documented as killed illegally that year, seven by a vehicle or train, and eight by natural causes.
Butte-based FWP wolf biologist Nathan Lance said the system has produced stable trends.
“I would say our livestock depredations have stabilized out. Our wolf population in general has stabilized out,” he said, adding that in southwest Montana, harvest has been steady, too.
In northwest Montana, hunting wolves is more difficult due to the densely forested mountain landscape.
The wolf population has remained stable since 2011 when the species was removed from the U.S. Endangered Species List in Montana, and the state took over management. If the population again approached its minimal numbers, federal control would resume.
“Of course, we don't want them to revert back to the endangered species list,” Wahl said. “So far it seems like things are going well with Montana managing wolves. Then again you've got to remember they're a controversial animal and not everybody agrees with that. But I think so far, so good. That's just an opinion,” he said.
On Friday, he also signed Senate Bill 267 which allows reimbursement for expenses related to hunting or trapping a wolf.
All three bills were furiously contested—wolf impact on game numbers, livestock depredations, cruelty and hunter ethics were all subjects of debate. The most controversial wolf-related bill is still in play.
SB 314 directs FWP to reduce wolf numbers and says the commission may use the most liberal regulations in regions with the greatest numbers of wolves. Under the bill, the commission may consider unlimited harvest by individual trappers or hunters, use of bait for hunting and private land hunting of wolves at night using artificial light or night vision scopes.
The bill has passed and is awaiting the governor's action.
Illegal killings rare
The helicopter incident in the Big Hole isn’t a trend—neither Dean nor Wahl has ever heard of a wolf shot by a private citizen from a helicopter in Montana before.
Both wardens said documented illegal wolf takes are fairly uncommon.
"Like any wildlife there very well could be issues we don't know about, wolves that were taken unlawfully — they were just left in the field, or a shoot-shovel-shut up type of thing, but realistically, this is not a common occurrence to my knowledge," Wahl said.
Lance said there are typically two or fewer known illegal wolf kills in his area each year.
“But we have a lot of liberties. Ranchers can defend their livestock. We have a very, for the most part, liberal harvest season — you can take a lot of wolves. It's very different now than it was in the past … if it's a federally protected species and people aren't empowered to help themselves or feel like they're engaged in management, it might be different then," he said.
There is a trend towards leniency in how unlawful wolf takes are handled.
Dean recalled responding to an incident several years ago when a wolf was illegally shot out of a government trap by a private citizen without a license.
He cited the man for his unlawful take, and wrote an additional $1,000 restitution fine on the citation. Dean said the judge questioned the warden on the value of the animal. Dean pointed out he was acting on the letter of the law, but the judge didn’t charge the restitution.
In researching Gianforte’s offense, The Montana State News Bureau filed a public records request March 24 for all written warnings and citations related to the hunting and trapping of wolves in the last five years. FWP complied with the request April 6 by releasing 29 citations and nine written warnings from around the state.
Of the citations, 12 were for the illegal taking, killing, possession, or waste of a wolf, for which a warden can charge $1,000 restitution.
Only one citation noted restitution.
Dean said most times, for any game animal unlawfully hunted, he writes a restitution charge into the citation.
The restitution cost of certain trophy animals goes up based on their size. Wolves are not listed in the Montana statutes as trophies.
Not game animals
Both Dean and Wahl brought up a policy that sets wolves apart from game animals.
“They're not a game animal. Keep that in mind. I mean, the Legislature has even passed a law stating that you can shoot a wolf and waste it in the field,” Wahl said.
HB 336, passed in 2011, made it legal to kill a wolf and leave it in the field to waste, as long as a hunter is licensed, the wolf tagged, and FWP informed.
“It is the only species you can do that with in Montana,” Lance said.
Carried by Rep. Mike Menahan, D-Helena, and signed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer, the law was written after hunters expressed concern about tapeworms in wolf carcasses.
Nick Gevock, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation, said the law set a terrible precedent for hunter ethics regarding wolves.
However, neither Gevock, Dean nor Wahl were aware of legal hunters choosing to waste their wolf kill since it was passed.
“I personally have yet to know of anyone that's left their wolf harvest in the field. I think to a lot of them it’s a valuable animal, it's a valuable harvest. And they're kind of a trophy in a way,” Wahl said.
According to the wardens, Tamcke and Peterson planned on having their wolves skinned, not tossed out. Gianforte’s wolf wasn’t confiscated, and he said he planned to have it mounted.
The bottom line, Wahl said, is that the waste-in-place policy doesn’t change how the species should be managed.
“I don't think it lessens the value or the importance of managing wolves on the landscape. They're still of a valuable part of the landscape,” Wahl said.
Gevock said wolf hunters have largely demonstrated good hunter ethics, and calls the anti-wolf laws moving through the Legislature “extreme anti-predator fervor.”
His organization is a strong advocate for ethical fair chase hunting and trapping of wolves, and helped write the 2011 wolf delisting rider that removed Endangered Species Act protections and turned the species over to state management.
“I have long thought that hunting of a species would help build support for that species, including predators. And this session has really shaken my belief in that,” he said.
“There's a contingent of the hunting population that would just as soon wipe wolves out. But I think the vast majority of hunters are ethical fair chase hunters who say they have a role on the landscape. They play a role in the ecosystem, but just like every other species, we need to manage them, including hunting,” he added.
Whatever it was before, a wolf’s value is quickly changing in the West.
In Idaho, a bill approved by the state Senate and moved to the House on Wednesday would give the state extensive reach to cut the wolf population from about 1,500 to as few as 150, the Associated Press reported.
In Montana, FWP has set certain benchmarks, such as 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs, in its wolf management plan as numbers to remain above to avoid a potential federal re-listing under the Endangered Species Act.
Gevock said that number has been misconstrued by supporters of anti-wolf legislation.
“That was the point at which to begin discussion of de-listing. It was never a goal to say we are going to try to manage for an absolute bare minimum number of wolves. But that's the way it was perceived," he said.
Just how the wolf-related laws will be implemented and how many wolves will be killed is unknowable, but Gevock finds confidence in nature.
“Wolves are a very elastic species. They can take a very aggressive hunt. And I have seen peer reviewed papers that say you can kill 40% of a wolf population in a year and they can bounce back," he said.
Wolf management in Montana is already a violent matter, with around a quarter of the population killed off each year.
But it’s working, said National Wildlife Federation president Tom Puchlerz, in a letter asking the governor to veto the wolf bills.
“Montana has long struck a balance between conserving these valued native wildlife species, and managing them to regulate their numbers and protect livestock from depredations. It’s a careful middle ground that has served our state well,” he said.