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 Matt 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 century-old 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 non-urban 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 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 tenfold-increase 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. Diane Boyd, a Kalispell-based biologist who has been studying wolves in Montana for more than 40 years and recently retired as one of FWP’s Wolf and Carnivore Specialists, says a significant portion of wolves collared in her last year at FWP were also killed that same year. “It’s no longer about science. It’s all about politics,” Boyd says.
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,” Boyd 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.”
Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, a quote from Diane Boyd was misattributed to Sarah Sells. The piece has been updated.