Rocky Mountain Massacre

Was Yellowstone’s Deadliest Wolf Hunt in 100 Years an Inside Job?

Wolf tracks in Yellowstone National Park on Jan. 7, 2018. Photo: Jacob W. Frank/National Park Service

Daylight was fading over the Northern Range of Yellowstone National Park. It was late January, and a cold front had just moved in. Nearing the park’s boundary, the young wolf would have been unfazed by the plunging temperatures. He was not quite 3 years old, with thick black fur and a GPS collar fitted around his neck. Standing among the rest of his pack, he was, up to that moment, a survivor.


The Junction Butte pack photographed from a fixed-wing aircraft on March 21, 2019.

Photo: NPS/Dan Stahler

It had been a long and bloody winter for wolves living on the park’s northern border, and it wasn’t over yet. As the sun began to dip over the horizon, the wolf known as 1233 crossed the invisible line separating Yellowstone’s protected lands from the national forest territory of Southwest Montana. A shot rang out.

When park officials visited the scene, they found a pool of blood, crimson on the fallen snow, just outside the Yellowstone boundary line. The wolf’s body was gone.

For years, Montana had imposed strict quotas limiting the number of wolves hunters could kill in the two districts north of Yellowstone. Last year, those restrictions were lifted. Hunters gathered along the park’s border in anticipation.

The first killings were reported less than a week after the season opened: two 8-month-old pups and a yearling. They were members of the Junction Butte pack, the most famous wolves on Earth. Living embodiments of one of the most celebrated conservation comeback stories of all time, their very existence helped make 2021 Yellowstone’s busiest year on record.

Doug Smith was in his office in Mammoth, Wyoming, home base for Yellowstone staff, when the news came. Smith has been with the Yellowstone Wolf Project since the beginning, serving as senior biologist and head of the program for 24 of its 27 years. He was surprised and troubled. The killings had started so soon. Being late summer, the wolves’ fur was still light and ratty — without the luxuriant winter coat, it had no economic value. What’s more, the pups had never left the pack before. “Their first movements and they’re dead,” Smith told me. “It was hard to take.”

“The level of mortality is historic and catastrophic. And I’m worried about next winter, because the thing is, compromise and reasonability seems to be gone.”

Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly assured a worried public that the park was working with Montana officials to reinstate the quotas. The reinstatement never came. When Montana’s hunting season ended in March, the state’s game agency reported 273 wolves killed. The National Park Service counted 25 Yellowstone wolves among the dead, with 19 killed in Montana, all in the hunting districts where the quotas had been lifted, as well as four in Wyoming and two in Idaho.

Roughly a fifth of Yellowstone’s wolf population was gone, with one pack seemingly eliminated entirely. It was a death toll unlike anything Smith and his colleagues had seen since wolves were reintroduced to the Northern Rockies in the 1990s. “The level of mortality is historic and catastrophic,” he said. “And I’m worried about next winter, because the thing is, compromise and reasonability seems to be gone.”

1233 was the last of the park’s wolves to die during the winter hunt, and his killing stood out from the others. Given the timing and proximity to Yellowstone’s border, the Park Service opened an investigation into the incident. Still emitting signals after his death, 1233’s collar pointed to the property of a local hunting guide. Like others in the area, the guide linked wolf hunting to a broader political project aimed at resurrecting the glory days of the American West. But as the investigation soon uncovered, the outfitter was the mere recipient of 1233’s collar. The man who pulled the trigger, ending the deadliest year for Yellowstone’s wolves in living memory, was one of the park’s own backcountry law enforcement rangers.


The elimination of the Yellowstone wolf-hunting quotas was one measure among many that Greg Gianforte, Montana’s first Republican governor in more than a decade and a half, instituted in 2021.

Following an on-again-off-again process that began in 2009, wolves have been absent from the Endangered Species Act list and fair game for hunters and trappers in Montana for the better part of a decade. Gianforte’s measures sought to turbocharge those efforts. The goal was to reduce the state’s wolf population to a “sustainable” level by killing at least 450 animals. To hit that mark, Montana extended its hunting season and gave individual hunters and trappers license to kill 20 wolves each, enough to eliminate entire packs. The state legalized the use of bait to lure wolves off protected lands. Aerial hunting was authorized, as was hunting after dark with night vision and bright lights to disorient wolves. Snares, indiscriminate tools that routinely kill other wild animals and pets, were now permitted. Idaho, aiming to eliminate 90 percent of its wolf population, passed a series of similar measures.

BELGRADE, MT - NOVEMBER 03: Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT) joins President Donald Trump at a "Make America Great Again" rally at the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport on November 3, 2018 in Belgrade, Montana. (Photo by William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images)

Then-Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., joins President Donald Trump at a “Make America Great Again” rally at the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport on Nov. 3, 2018.

Photo: William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images

“It’s unprecedented,” Andrea Zaccardi, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, told me. Last summer, Zaccardi’s organization, along with the Humane Society Legislative Fund and the Sierra Club, filed an emergency petition calling on the Biden administration to return wolves in Montana and Idaho to the endangered species list. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, under Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, announced a yearlong review of the request. A decision is expected in September.

The potential return of federal wolf management to the Northern Rockies sets the stage for a volatile new episode in one of the West’s most dramatic sagas. The final decision may well hinge on events along Yellowstone’s northern border last year. This account of how those events unfolded is based on hundreds of pages of internal state and federal records, as well as nearly eight months of reporting that included interviews with current and former Yellowstone officials and members of the guiding and outfitting community in Southwest Montana.

State and federal authorities have opened two ongoing — and previously unreported — investigations into the killing of wolf 1233 by the veteran Park Service employee. With more than three decades of service in Yellowstone, Brian Helms, the backcountry ranger in question, is adamant that his kill was legal. Now retired, Helms claims that he was neither the first nor the only Yellowstone employee to kill a wolf during last year’s hunt, but that he was singled out because the wolf he killed was part of the park’s vaunted research program. The result, Helms claims, was a federal “witch hunt” in which he and at least two other current Yellowstone rangers were wrongly accused of orchestrating a conspiracy to kill wolves.

The killing of wolf 1233 opened a dramatic new chapter in a longer story, one in which a millionaire governor stacked a critical state game commission — long praised for its nonpartisan, science-based wildlife management — with donors who gave tens of thousands of dollars to his political campaigns, lacked wildlife management experience, expressed disdain for efforts to protect endangered species in general and wolves in particular, and had vested interests in the industries, including trophy hunting, that made Gianforte’s ascent possible.

In Yellowstone, the commission’s policymaking would fundamentally alter one of the most productive environmental research initiatives in modern history. Under Gianforte, a small but effective community of hunters who had spent years clamoring for an open season on the park’s wolves was unleashed. By winter’s end, their collective efforts had transformed the park’s borderlands into a killing field, striking a painful blow against an initiative that has long been seen in right-wing corners of the state as a symbol of the federal government sticking its nose where it does not belong.


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“It’s payback now, clear and simple,” said Carter Niemeyer. A former federal trapper, Niemeyer spent decades in the Northern Rockies as the top wolf official at Wildlife Services, an arm of the Department of Agriculture that investigates claims of wolf predation on livestock and kills wolves that have been deemed a problem. Now a sharp critic of his former employer, Niemeyer has described his old job as being a “hired gun of the livestock industry.”

In a 2010 memoir, Niemeyer detailed how he watched wolves become the cipher for a broader set of anti-government, anti-regulation, anti-science, right-wing politics in the West. More than a decade later, these are the politics shaping life in the region, he argued. “It’s just a bunch of politicians reinforcing a bunch of mercenaries, who are having a grand ol’ time killing wolves,” he told me. For the retired trapper and many others who were close to last year’s events, what happened on Yellowstone’s border was no hunt. It was a state-sanctioned outburst of revanchist political aggression and revelry. Facts and evidence didn’t matter. After two and a half decades of seeing their perceived political opponents have their way, the new mindset was vengeance.

“It’s retribution time,” Niemeyer said. “‘Hell with science, hell with anything. We like to kill wolves.’”

The Return


Doug Smith and Pat Peralez carry a crated wolf for release into Yellowstone National Park in April 1996.

Photo: NPS

On a wintry morning in January 1995, a caravan of horse trailers and law enforcement vehicles passed under the Roosevelt Arch, the iconic northern gateway into Yellowstone National Park. Inside the trailers were eight wolves, captured in the Canadian wilderness and loaded into aluminum crates for a historic journey south. International TV crews lined the road. Children cheered as the vehicles passed.

In the 1920s, the National Park Service — the same agency driving the wolves into Yellowstone 75 years later — oversaw their systematic extermination. The purge, which included rangers shooting wolves on sight, was part of a wider effort to bolster big game populations for hunters and provide financial security for ranchers by wiping predators off the map. Mass poisoning not only led to the near-total extirpation of wolves from the lower 48, but it also caused the deaths of millions of other animals, fueling what historians have called “an ecological holocaust.”

A half-century later, the passage of the Endangered Species Act required the Park Service to adopt a different approach. The landmark law imposed strict prohibitions on the hunting and trapping of animals that the federal government listed as threatened or endangered. Where imperiled species and habitats were concerned, the feds took precedence over state authorities. Wolves were among the first listed species. In response, the Park Service initiated a multidecade process that featured the largest and most divisive wildlife management debate in modern U.S. history and ultimately led to the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone and Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

It was a heady time for a Democratic administration to implement a controversial federal initiative in the heart of the West. For nearly two decades, the Endangered Species Act had been a source of outrage. Conservative ranchers, lawmakers with an eye to resource extraction, and right-wing anti-government militants alike saw the law as an attack on their way of life. Extremism in the region further exploded under Bill Clinton, the president whose administration would oversee the wolf reintroduction.

This was the political landscape that Smith and his colleagues stepped into every time they left Yellowstone. The biologist often found himself face to face with people whose grandparents were paid to kill wolves and believed that the feds, taking orders from environmental extremists, were dishonoring the legacy of their forebears. Hostile confrontations were common. “It happened almost weekly,” Smith told me.

Smith was on the ground when the first wolves arrived. It was a moment of extreme anxiety. While the animals were in the air, the American Farm Bureau filed a motion that led to a court stay during which the animals could not be removed from their crates. Smith and his team hydrated the wolves with ice cubes pushed through breathing holes. Thirty-eight excruciating hours passed before the order was lifted.


Yellowstone wolf biologist Doug Smith poses for a portrait in Bozeman, Mont., on Feb. 5, 2022.

Photo: Louise Johns/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The wolves were released into an acclimation enclosure. The Park Service hid armed guards in hunting blinds nearby. Poisoning threats were streaming in. Wyoming Republicans passed a measure offering a $500 bounty to anyone who killed one of the animals outside the park and required the state to pay their legal fees if they were charged under the Endangered Species Act. One Wyoming hunter told The Associated Press that the lawmakers should forget legislation and follow the lead of wolf haters in Minnesota: “They have the three ‘S’s — shoot, shovel, and shut up,” he said. “Maybe that’s what we’ll do.”

Yellowstone lost its first wolf a month after the enclosure was opened. The huge alpha male had followed his pregnant mate into Montana. He was shot by a man named Chad McKittrick, a barfly from Red Lodge, a small town 70 miles northeast of the park. McKittrick skinned and beheaded the wolf, then returned home with his trophies. He was arrested soon after and found guilty of killing the wolf and transporting the body parts. In the run-up to his trial, McKittrick rode his horse through town in an Independence Day parade, wearing a pistol on his hip and a T-shirt that read, “Northern Rockies Wolf Reduction Project.” He gave autographs in the local saloons. His supporters printed T-shirts celebrating the “three ‘S’s” and bumper stickers encouraging drivers to “smoke a pack a day.”

The Chad McKittricks of Yellowstone’s borderlands would always pose a threat to the park’s wolves, but they did not stop the reintroduction. On the contrary, the program succeeded beyond its proponents’ wildest dreams. With wolves back — and with similar revivals of mountain lion and grizzly bear populations — Yellowstone entered a period of transformation, drawing closer than ever before to the ecosystem that existed before European settlers arrived.

The Yellowstone Wolf Project became a model for predator reintroduction worldwide. Wolf biologists described working a year in the park as comparable to working a decade anywhere else. Unmatched levels of observational opportunity allowed researchers to study, in real time, what happens when an ecosystem becomes whole again. It also resulted in a massive infusion of cash, estimated at more than $80 million a year, for the parks system and Yellowstone-adjacent communities, with tourists streaming in for a chance at seeing wild wolves living their best lives without fear of man.

To mark the 25th anniversary of the reintroduction, Smith and his colleagues published “Yellowstone Wolves: Science and Discovery in the World’s First National Park,” a glossy, 344-page book collaboratively written by more than two dozen biologists and researchers. The book relayed the story of the Park Service’s journey from wolf extirpation to reintroduction. Released on December 7, 2020, “Yellowstone Wolves” instantaneously became a time capsule, capturing a mood of accomplishment, triumph, and joy that was on the precipice of an unprecedented attack.


A wolf walks alone in snow in Yellowstone National Park on Jan. 18, 2022.

Photo: Jacob Margarit

A New War

Before becoming Montana’s first Republican governor since the George W. Bush administration, Greg Gianforte was best known for choke-slamming a journalist on the eve of a congressional election victory. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and was ordered to do community service and anger management therapy. A year later, President Donald Trump praised his attack at a Missoula rally, telling a crowd of 8,000 cheering supporters, “He’s my guy.”

Gianforte’s path from journalist assailant to Trump’s “guy” to paradigm-shifting force in Montana wolf management stemmed from political and financial stars aligning just so over the Rocky Mountain West. Gianforte migrated to Montana in 1995, the year of the wolf reintroduction, and started a software company that he later sold for $1.5 billion. After a failed gubernatorial bid, in which he spent a historic $5 million of his own money, he became the richest man in Congress in 2017, replacing Ryan Zinke, who Trump tapped to lead the Interior Department. A few years later, when Gov. Steve Bullock’s term expired, Gianforte loaned himself $7.5 million, and the Democratic Party’s reign over the governor’s mansion in Helena came to an end.

In addition to personal wealth and contributions from the oil and gas industry, Gianforte’s ascent benefited from key personal connections. Donald Trump Jr., for example, stumped hard for the governor. The relationship signaled Gianforte’s endorsement from an important constituency in the West: the wealthy, right-wing trophy hunter. Like Chad McKittrick in his “Wolf Reduction Project” T-shirt, Trump Jr. posted unapologetic photos of himself posing with the animals he paid to kill — images guaranteed to trigger the libs. His brand of MAGA-infused engagement with the natural world was celebrated by groups like Safari Club International, one of the most influential trophy-hunting outfits in the country. With 50,000 “politically active” members, the Tucson-based organization was a major contributor to Gianforte’s 2020 victory.

While Gianforte vowed to clean house in all state agencies, his record with the department responsible for Montana’s wildlife was particularly rocky. In his previous gubernatorial bid, he complained that the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, better known as FWP, was “at war with the landowners” and doing the bidding of “environmental extremists.”

Before taking office, Gianforte created a 12-member team — made up entirely of past FWP critics and people with financial interests in natural resources — and tasked them with recommending a new head of the department. Following his inauguration, he announced that Henry “Hank” Worsech would lead the overhaul. The state’s press release featured high praise from the National Trappers Association and the Montana Stockgrowers Association. It noted Worsech’s 30 years of government service but neglected to mention his previous role as executive director of the Montana Board of Outfitters, the licensing authority for outfitters and guides in the state.

Alongside ranching, trapping, and trophy-hunting lobbies, outfitters — guides who take hunters into the backcountry — generally round out the interests most in favor of liberalizing wolf hunting Montana, particularly around Yellowstone.

Similar connections ran through Gianforte’s picks for a small but important panel of commissioners overseeing FWP. The “quasi-judicial citizen board” is distinct from FWP. By law, its commissioners, who set regulations and approve rules for the game agency, are to be appointed by the governor “without regard to political affiliation” and “solely for the wise management of the fish and wildlife of the state.” The panel had five commissioners corresponding to five districts at the time of Gianforte’s inauguration. Once in office, the governor directed Republicans on the state Senate Fish and Game Committee to block acting Commissioner Andrew McKean, a journalist and former FWP employee, from attaining a permanent seat on the commission, despite the unanimous praise McKean received from a variety hunting, fishing, and conservation organizations at his hearing.

In McKean’s place, Gianforte nominated his former 2016 gubernatorial running mate, Lesley Robinson, a Montana Stockgrowers Association board member, to head the commission. His remaining nominees, described by the Missoula Current as “three rich businessmen,” were all financial contributors to his prior campaigns. They included K.C. Walsh, president of a popular fishing equipment and apparel company, and Patrick Tabor, former president of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association. A California accountant turned wilderness entrepreneur, Tabor had run an outfitting operation near Glacier National Park that received five FWP citations and several complaints from the U.S. Forest Service for dumping manure and garbage on public lands in years past. (According to Tabor, the charges were dismissed before they went to court. His son now runs the company.)

Oil and gas executive Brian Cebull, another Gianforte nominee, contributed $13,360 to the governor’s various campaigns over the years, making him one of Gianforte’s biggest individual backers in the entire state. In 2013, the former Safari Club International chapter president testified in a U.S. House Natural Resources Committee hearing on the listing of the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. His arguments foreshadowed the kind of thinking that would animate Gianforte’s approach to wolves nearly a decade later. Cebull focused less on the sage grouse and more on the “politically motivated management” of wolves and grizzlies and the threats posed by the Endangered Species Act itself. As the Current noted, the proposed listing would have restricted where fossil fuel companies could drill on public lands, which is perhaps why Cebull sounded most impassioned when he was describing how the moment made him feel, like it was an attack on his culture — that of an oil man and trophy hunter with vested interests in deregulation. “There is a new war in the West,” he testified. “And it’s a war on our traditional Montana values.”

Gianforte’s nominees were confirmed by the Republican-controlled state Legislature in a party-line vote. The reordering left one commissioner standing from the Bullock era: Pat Byorth, who happened to be responsible for the sliver of Southwest Montana that includes Yellowstone.

Born and raised in Billings, Byorth’s passion is Montana’s rivers and streams, which, throughout his childhood, were hardly the pristine waterways they are today. He spent 17 years as an FWP fisheries biologist before going back to school, earning a law degree, and becoming Montana water director for the conservation group Trout Unlimited. Byorth was fresh out of grad school when wolves were returned to Yellowstone. He took pride in the effort, seeing it as an extension of the conservation work going on statewide — an example, he liked to say, of Montana being “the adult in the room” among Western states. Byorth believed that eventually politics would subside and Montana would manage wolves like any other animal. For a time, it seemed he was right. Then came Gianforte. “There was a core of people, I believe, in the Legislature and in the Republican Party, who wanted vengeance,” Byorth said. “They’re still mad about ’95.”

“There was always that group of trappers there that was really opposed to a more moderate approach. And they are very good hunters and trappers.”

“All of a sudden, this very small group of fringe people now have a ton of power, and they’re seeking revenge,” he said. “They want revenge for wolves. They want revenge for grizzlies. They want revenge for lily-livered liberals.”

The group Byorth described was clamoring for changes to wolf-hunting regulations outside Yellowstone in the run-up to Gianforte’s election.

In February 2020, the FWP commission lowered the wolf-hunting quotas in the two hunting districts north of the park from two each to one. The quotas had existed for nearly a decade. Dan Vermillion, Byorth’s predecessor on the commission, said the motivation was compromise — balancing the enormous economic value that wolf watching brings, the rights of hunters and trappers, and the fact that areas north of the park are home to a small but highly motivated community of people who could do serious damage to the park’s wolf population without limitations in place. “There was always that group of trappers there that was really opposed to a more moderate approach,” Vermillion told me. “And they are very good hunters and trappers.”

For wolf advocates in the park, the lowering of the quotas was welcome news. For wolf hunters to the north, it was an abomination. On October 15, while national attention was fixed on the presidential election, O Bar Lazy E Outfitters, based in the unincorporated community Emigrant, 20 miles north of Yellowstone, posted a photo of two dead wolves in front of a Trump-Pence 2020 sign. “We saved a few elk today,” the caption read.

The photo was shared by Ryan Counts, the owner of O Bar Lazy E. Counts is known to be as prominent, motivated, and successful a wolf hunter as anyone in the Southwest Montana hunting and trapping scene. His family has been in the region for generations. Their history with wolf hunting runs deep. Counts’s grandfather was among the local hunters who were paid to remove the animals from the landscape in the 1920s, and his son is an avid wolf hunter, carrying on the family tradition. “You go into the historic country where these elk used to be, you don’t even find an elk rack anymore,” Counts told me. “It ain’t even the hunting, it’s the wolves that keep them pushed down out of the mountains. They won’t even go into some of them places anymore.”

Among die-hard advocates of liberalized wolf hunts, the argument that the 1995 Yellowstone reintroduction destroyed the state’s elk population is repeated like gospel. In fact, researchers say, there are roughly as many elk in Montana today as there have been at any point in the past two centuries, and FWP consistently records elk populations at or above target levels north of the park. Nonetheless, on October 28, 2020, the claim that wolves had decimated the elk population was the basis of a lawsuit filed in Montana’s 6th Judicial District challenging the existence of the Yellowstone quotas.

The plaintiffs included a fourth-generation outfitter named William H. Hoppe and an organization calling itself the Outdoor Heritage Coalition. A longtime critic of the Yellowstone reintroduction, Hoppe killed a park wolf in 2013 after a deadly attack on his sheep. Wolf advocates accused him of baiting the wolf onto his property. FWP found no basis for the allegations. The Outdoor Heritage Coalition, meanwhile, described itself as an “upfront/in-your face type organization” on a mission to “not let these liberals decide what’s best for our land and resources.” The coalition included a former federal trapper named Matt Lumley who, as a board member for Safari Club International’s Southwest Montana chapter, had been arguing for a relaxation of wolf-hunting quotas north of Yellowstone for years. The litigation ultimately proved unnecessary: One week after the suit was filed, Gianforte won the governor’s race. Hoppe, Lumley, and the Outdoor Heritage Coalition withdrew their claim the following year.


A bull elk chases cows on the shore of Yellowstone Lake.

Photo: Neal Herbert/NPS

In late March, less than 24 hours after Gianforte’s FWP commissioners were confirmed, the swiftly evolving nature of the state’s shift on wolves spilled into public view. A source tipped off reporter Nate Hegyi of the Mountain West News Bureau that Gianforte himself had trapped and killed a collared Yellowstone wolf 10 miles north of the park. The killing took place on a private ranch called Point of Rocks, owned at the time by Robert E. Smith, the director of the right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group, one of the nation’s largest owners of television stations, and a major donor to Gianforte’s political campaigns.

As Hegyi’s reporting revealed, Gianforte shot the wolf without taking a requisite trapping course. The governor said it was an accident — a claim that Montana’s chapter of the sportsmen’s group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers found dubious. FWP called the affair an “educational opportunity.” Gianforte kept the wolf’s skull and hide. His guide to the animal was the ranch manager of Point of Rocks — Lumley. Following his election, Gianforte had selected the Outdoor Heritage Coalition plaintiff to serve on the team that recommended Worsech to lead FWP. The governor described Lumley as a friend and a mentor. “It was an honor to kind of have him show me the ropes,” he said in an interview after he bagged the wolf.

By that point, Republican proposals to slash Montana’s wolf population were already moving through the Legislature. The most important — introduced by Bob Brown, the senator who blocked Andrew McKean’s nomination — ordered the FWP commission to set rules for the upcoming hunting and trapping season “with the intent to reduce the wolf population” to a “sustainable level,” while maintaining the 15 breeding pairs necessary to fend off relisting by the feds under the Endangered Species Act. Brown proposed unlimited wolf-hunting and -trapping permits and the use of baiting and night hunting. He also introduced legislation to reimburse wolf hunters and trappers for the costs they incurred, effectively creating a wolf bounty system. Rep. Paul Fielder, the Montana Trappers Association’s liaison to FWP, introduced companion legislation greenlighting the snaring of wolves statewide.

In the justifications they provided to reporters, the pair told of soaring wolf numbers and elk decimation. The Republican lawmakers had put forward similar measures before, only to be vetoed by Democratic governors. This time, they were not deterred. A month after he killed his wolf, Gianforte signed Brown’s population reduction bill. The passage of more than a half-dozen other measures targeting predators soon followed.

On August 20, the new FWP commissioners met to vote on how Montana’s wolf hunt would proceed. Tabor, the outfitter who was now the commission’s vice chair, presented a proposal to kill at least 450 wolves with the full suite of controversial measures the Republican Legislature had endorsed, as well as the complete elimination of wolf-hunting quotas north of Yellowstone. Byorth responded by raising the issue of “fair chase,” the hunting principle requiring that human hunters do not take unfair advantage of their nonhuman prey. The lesson was imparted to Byorth by his conservative father. “He taught me about ethics, and he taught me about fair chase, and I’m pretty sure he’d come unspooled if he thought we were going to start baiting and night hunting,” he said. These were tactics game wardens open investigations for, Byorth argued — not the kind of activity game commissioners should provide cover for. If the state went down this road, he warned, Montana risked losing its management of wolves altogether. Tabor bristled. “I don’t respond well to anybody challenging my ethics,” he said. “I’ll stand by my motion.”

While a handful of speakers rose in support, 30 people at the hearing spoke up against Tabor’s proposal, a sliver of the approximately 25,000 who sent comments to FWP, most registering opposition. It was likely a record-setting response, the agency later said. The commission voted 3-2 to support Tabor’s proposal anyway. Robinson and Cebull voted in favor. Walsh, who had announced his opposition at the public hearing, and Byorth voted against.

Less than a month later, the hunt was on.

Killing Season


A wolf is seen on a road near Artist Paint Pots in Yellowstone National Park.

Photo: Jacob W. Frank/NPS

The trucks appeared at dawn and dusk. From a roadside pullout overlooking the park, hunters trained their scopes on Yellowstone’s border. Using electronic predator calls to draw wolves over the line, they waited for flickers of movement, packs silhouetted against the snow.

Yellowstone’s wolves have developed predictable habits over the years. Guides that cater to Yellowstone tourists are paid to know where they will be on any given day — and usually they do. That changed with last year’s hunt. “I saw wolf behavior that I had never seen before,” Kyle Dudgeon, a park guide, told me. Packs broke apart. Lone wolves who avoided roads wandered through traffic.

The wolves weren’t the only ones behaving differently. As the death toll mounted, the area’s most prominent anti-wolf families shared photos of the animals they killed on Instagram, occasionally tagging Yellowstone in their posts. Locals shared videos alerting fellow hunters to wolves spotted in Gardiner, the park’s northern gateway community. “Kill ’em all!” commenters urged. Park guides were advised by their bosses to avoid talking about wolves on their radios when they were in northern Yellowstone, lest they be intercepted by hunters.

“It was a full-on effort to hunt wolves this year,” Dudgeon said. “It seemed very calculated.”

“It’s a win-win for them. Not only did they get a Yellowstone wolf, they cause us pain and suffering.”

Over the course of Montana’s seven-month season, a total of 15 people were responsible for killing 21 wolves in the newly liberalized hunting districts north of Yellowstone, FWP wolf management specialist Nathan Lance told me in an email. More than two-thirds of the animals were claimed by four individual hunters. Two were trapped. All were shot.

Devastated by the killings, Yellowstone’s dedicated community of wolf watchers had long known that the park’s borderlands were populated with people who saw killing wolves as something more than just a hunt. In 2013, an image made the rounds online. It showed eight men standing in a snowy clearing. They claimed to be a crew of fed-up Wyoming hunters. They wore white hoods over their faces, Ku Klux Klan-style, and shouldered shotguns and rifles. Two of the men had an American flag stretched between them. A third held a dead wolf in his arms. To Marc Cooke, president of the nonprofit organization Wolves of the Rockies, the sentiment reflected in the image — channeling ominous, defiant, armed nationalism into the killing of a creature beloved by one’s political enemies — is exactly what the events along Yellowstone’s boundary were all about. “You have an element that not only wants to kill that wolf, but takes pleasure in killing that wolf because it hurts and causes pain to the Yellowstone wolf watching community,” he told me. “It’s a win-win for them. Not only did they get a Yellowstone wolf, they cause us pain and suffering.”

In an image circulated online in 2013, purported Wyoming hunters display a wolf carcass with an American flag, showing how wolf hunting and armed nationalism can go hand in hand.

Screenshot: The Intercept

The last deadliest year for Yellowstone’s wolves was 2012, when 12 wolves were killed. “We viewed that as catastrophic,” Smith, the head of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, told me. Most years, the park expected to absorb the loss of three to four wolves to hunting. “We’re after compromise,” Smith said. “Is 25 a compromise?” Even for a veteran of the worst of the wolf wars, the toll was difficult to stomach. “We were probably the best-studied unexploited wolf population in the world,” Smith said. “And now we don’t have that.”

In January, the FWP commission held a hearing to discuss the ongoing hunt. In the preceding months, Gianforte had added two seats to the commission and made the new appointments: Jana Waller, the host of “Skull Bound Chronicles,” a reality TV show that follows Waller as she turns the skulls of animals she hunts into art, and Bill Lane, the owner of a cattle ranch. At the hearing, Byorth and Walsh introduced urgent amendments to close the hunt north of the park. The proposal echoed the concerns of virtually every person who called in to comment. It was rejected. The season ended the following month. The information that made it into reporting at the time painted a dark portrait of the hunt’s unprecedented impact. The story unfolding behind the scenes was far more dramatic.

On January 30, one day after the FWP commission declined to close the hunt north of the Yellowstone, backcountry ranger Brian Helms spotted some wolves on the park’s northern edge. Helms had a wolf-hunting license, and he decided that after he got off work, it might be good day to use it.

The 57-year-old had joined the Park Service as a maintenance worker in 1985. He became a Park Ranger three years later. During the 1995 reintroduction, Helms was one of the rangers who hid out in the hunting blinds to guard the wolves that were flown down from Canada. For more than two decades, he patrolled the park’s northern boundary near Gardiner, mostly on horseback, investigating poachers and suspected lawbreakers. In 2021, he secured an extension to stay on another for a year, staving off a mandatory retirement due to his age.


Brian Helms, now a retired Park Service ranger, leads pack mules in Yellowstone in 2003.

Photo: NPS/Jim Peaco

Helms had harvested a wolf on the park’s border before, a few years earlier. This time would be different. This time, the wolf he killed was wearing GPS collar.

After work, Helms met up with Counts, the Emigrant-based outfitter who posted the photo of dead wolves in front of a Trump sign. The pair went to Beattie Gulch, an area on the park’s border near the edge of Gardiner, not far from where Helms had seen wolves earlier. Helms estimates that it was about a 250-yard shot and says it only took one round to take wolf 1233 down. “I didn’t know this thing was collared until I walked up to it,” he told me when we first spoke.

The former backcountry ranger is adamant about two points. The first is that he killed the wolf outside the park’s boundary. “Nobody on Earth knows that boundary better than I do,” Helms said. “I put every boundary marker up there. I know exactly where that’s at. I’m not going to jeopardize my retirement over a wolf. I guarantee you that.” The second is that he killed the wolf before the 5:59 p.m. hunting cutoff in place that night. “I checked prior to me shooting at that wolf, I know that, and I still had several minutes yet,” he said. “It was before 6 o’clock when I shot that wolf.” Both points would be critical to investigators in the weeks to come.

Helms is adamant about two points. The first is that he killed the wolf outside the park’s boundary. The second is that he killed the wolf before the hunting cutoff in place that night.

Helms lived in Mammoth at the time, at Yellowstone’s northern headquarters inside the park. He didn’t have a permit to transport the animal there, so he handed it off to his hunting partner, Counts. “He couldn’t take the stuff back to where he lived, so I just took it home for the night, and he turned it in the next day,” Counts told me.

According to Helms’s version of events, the walls began closing in on him within hours of calling in his wolf to FWP, as state regulations require, the day after his harvest. During the call, Helms said he affirmed that he had shot a collared wolf. When asked if he had the collar’s information, Helms said he did not: The collar was still at Counts’s property. This, Helms said, created a problem.

Anyone monitoring the wolf’s GPS in the park would see that it was on the property of the most well-known wolf-hunting family in Southwest Montana, which would lead to an assumption that Yellowstone had lost a collared wolf to a hunter, which would lead to a call to FWP about getting the collar back. FWP, meanwhile, would see that there was a recent wolf harvest claimed by Helms and that he reported that he did not have the collar’s information, which could imply that he illegally disposed of the tracking device. “Within 30 minutes of me calling that hotline, I was getting a call from the game warden wanting to know some information because he’d already been contacted by an individual in the park,” Helms said. An FWP wolf harvest registration form that I obtained shows that FWP Game Warden Gregg Todd conducted an inspection of Helms’s kill the following day.

The form Todd filled out reported that Helms killed wolf 1233 at 5:55 p.m., four minutes before the cutoff. GPS collar data available to officials in Yellowstone, however, showed the wolf still inside the park at 6 p.m., a minute after the hunting window closed. Current and former park employees familiar with the Helms investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymity owing to its sensitivity and wolf-related tensions surrounding the park, stressed that a GPS collar reporting a wolf’s location at a particular time and place is not proof that a wolf was in that exact spot at that exact time. There is a margin of error, especially in matters of a few minutes or meters. According to one source I spoke to, Yellowstone officials did find a pool of blood in the snow outside the park, indicating that the location of Helms’s kill was legal. Still, the timing discrepancies — evident to those who had seen the GPS data at the time of the investigation — raised concerns.

As Helms experienced it, his colleagues were looking for a reason to punish him. “When this all went down, I was guilty of something, they were just going to find out what it was. That’s how I felt,” he said. Shortly after the hunt, Helms said he met with Chris Flesch, now the park’s top ranger and at the time its deputy chief. According to Helms, Flesch informed him that allegations had been made against him — in Helms’s words: “That while I was on duty working, I would locate animals and give their locations to people outside the park who were hunting those animals.” The claims would lead to an administrative investigation inside the park. Helms recalled receiving the information in the morning. “I retired that afternoon,” he said.

Outside the park, FWP conducted its own investigation to determine whether any criminal activity had occurred in Helms’s wolf hunt. As part of that investigation, a pair of game wardens took Counts out to the kill site to walk through the events that evening. “Our tracks were there. The blood was there where the wolf died,” Counts said. “It was pretty cut and dry.”

Following his hunt, Helms said he learned that he and at least two other Yellowstone rangers were suspected in a “conspiracy,” as Helms put it, one in which the park’s deadliest year since the reintroduction was at least in part an inside job, with park law enforcement intentionally targeting wolves prized by park researchers by sharing their locational information with hunters. Helms said it was baseless.

Because he had retired and was no longer a Park Service employee, he did not sit for interviews with the department’s oversight investigators. “But there were other people that did,” Helms said, “that had been accused of being part of this big conspiracy, this big wolf conspiracy. The claims were unfounded against those guys as well.” The others, Helms said, were also Yellowstone rangers and were both temporarily stripped of their law enforcement authorities, despite having nothing to do with last winter’s hunt. “I’m sure that they thought that those other individuals were part of this wolf harvest, in some way,” he said. “They didn’t even know I had done it, had harvested a wolf.”

Helms added that the rangers were still working at Yellowstone. “The way they were treated, it was like kindergarten cop up there,” he said. “The people that were officially in charge of this investigation in the park, they had no idea what they were even doing.” Helms claimed that a separate Yellowstone employee participated in the hunt on the border. “There’s a government employee working in Yellowstone right now that harvested wolves last year — nothing’s been said. Because those wolves were not collared,” he said. “Apparently those wolves don’t matter.”

In terms of his wolf hunt, Helms was not mistaken about outsiders coming to Yellowstone to investigate. On February 10, a complaint “alleging misconduct” by a Yellowstone park ranger prompted the Park Service’s Office of Professional Responsibility to open a “Tier 1” investigation into the kill. The results were included in a sweeping report circulated inside the Park Service the following month. The file included two maps. The first described the location of 1233’s killing, stating that “the actions surrounding the wolf hunt started in the park and culminated outside the park at Beattie Gulch.” The second map showed two “approximate” locations of wolf 1233: the first in the park, and the second where he was killed, outside the park, 175 feet north of the first location. According to the file, GPS data had the wolf inside the park at 6 p.m. and reported that he was killed “at or about” 6:15 p.m. — both times were outside the legal hunting window.

Apart from the two maps, every page pertaining to the details of the investigation — 247 pages — was redacted by the Park Service.

The investigation into wolf 1233’s killing, which I obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, is 296 pages long, suggesting that the investigation was substantial and likely explored angles that went beyond the time and place of the wolf’s death. What those angles were, what investigators found, and whether Helms really was the subject of a “witch hunt” remain hidden from view. Apart from the two maps, every page pertaining to the details of the Office of Professional Responsibility’s investigation — 247 pages — was redacted by the Park Service.

Counts said Helms never shared information with him on the location of Yellowstone wolves for the purpose of hunting. He declined to answer when asked how, exactly, they coordinated their plan to go hunting on the day wolf 1233 was killed.

In the absence of an unredacted file, the most detailed information on the Helms investigation, at this point, comes from Helms himself. “I spent 36 years living and working in Yellowstone and protecting the resources and the environment out there. Why would I jeopardize anything like that in any way?” he said. “I helped reintroduce those wolves. I protected those wolves for decades.” Helms said he knew that some of his colleagues, especially later in his career, had come to see him as a wolf hater. “I’m not anti-wolf,” he said. “I’m not, by any means.” To him, the situation is as outrageous as it is clear cut — he had a right, he exercised it, and he was forced into early retirement because of it. “Wolves are just like any other animal, and they need to be managed, and the state of Montana chose to manage them the way that they did,” Helms said. “I elected to participate in that management action. I purchased a license. I harvested a wolf legally.”

The governor of Montana did authorize a wolf hunt unlike anything in recent history. The opportunities to participate were abundant. Still, there were clearly issues in the killing of wolf 1233 that went beyond questions of law. Among former colleagues, the fact that a veteran backcountry ranger capped off the deadliest hunt in modern park history by handing his trophy to a wolf hunter known for celebrating his kills with right-wing political imagery did not send the message of triumph and recovery that Yellowstone spent two and a half decades striving to promote.

Employees who knew about the kill, and the investigation that followed, were advised to keep the information close. Confirming its investigation for the first time in a statement late last week, the Office of the Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park said: “The National Park Service (NPS) received reports of possible inappropriate hunting activity involving a Yellowstone law enforcement ranger in February 2022. The investigation determined no hunting took place inside the park. Elements of the investigation are still under review.”

Citing its “ongoing investigation,” the park declined to comment on Helms’s claims that he was being investigated for a wolf-killing conspiracy and that other rangers were targeted and punished in the probe. In a separate statement last week, FWP said that it is conducting its own independent investigation into the killing, led by the department’s special investigations unit in Helena.

Mean Dogs


A wolf carcass sprawled out on the ground near Deckard Flats in Jardine, Mont., on Feb. 7, 2022.

Photo: Photo by Louise Johns for The Washington Post via Getty Images

A gray and drizzly dawn broke over the Lamar Valley. A trio of wolves loped silently across a hillside in the Crystal Creek drainage, the very spot where the first wolves reintroduced to the park were transferred from their horse trailers onto the mule-drawn sleighs that would cart them into their new home.

It was late May, and a member of the Junction Butte pack had recently relocated the pack’s pups to a rendezvous site hidden in the trees. Rick McIntyre, an author, researcher, and retired Park Service wolf interpreter, was trying to understand why.

“They probably have four litters, which is unusual,” McIntyre told me as we peered through our spotting scopes. “It’s more normal just to have one litter.”


Rick McIntyre watches wolves in Gardiner, Mont., on Feb. 5, 2022.

Photo: Louise Johns/The Washington Post via Getty Images
In the aftermath of last winter’s hunt, Yellowstone’s biologists noticed an unusually high number of female wolves — non-alphas who typically wouldn’t breed — taking to dens. Coyotes have been known to ramp up breeding during periods of mass human-caused mortality. Park researchers were gathering data to determine whether Yellowstone’s wolves were doing the same.

It was one angle among many that Yellowstone’s wide-ranging community of wolf experts were exploring in the wake of the hunt. Brenna Cassidy, a doctoral candidate at the University of Montana, took another approach. By examining the lives and deaths of collared park wolves going back years, Cassidy found that the type of harvest occurring outside the park — whether there is no hunting, hunting with quotas, or, last year’s example, hunting with few restrictions at all — is the most important indicator for a Yellowstone wolf’s survival to the next year. When there is no hunting or quotas are place, roughly 80 percent of Yellowstone wolves can be expected to make it. With hunts like last winter’s, that number drops to 62 percent, one of the lowest survival percentages on the continent, even among a population of wolves that spend 96 percent of their time inside the park. “It’s huge difference, and it’s seasonal. It’s always in the fall and the winter,” Cassidy told me. “It really is a remarkably clear result that we’re seeing here.”

Dan MacNulty, an associate professor of wildland resources at Utah State University who has studied Yellowstone’s wolves since the reintroduction, found himself fixated on the argument that served as the justification for the hunt to begin with: Montana had too many wolves, and a minimum of 450 should be killed to create a “sustainable” population. To assess the wisdom of the endeavor, one needed to know how many wolves the state of Montana had to begin with and how many wolves it considered a “sustainable” population. Neither answer, MacNulty discovered, was clear.

“How in the world are you going to satisfy the intent of this law, which says you must reduce the population to sustainable level, if that sustainable level has not been defined?”

To arrive at its recommendation, FWP had turned to its integrated population occupancy model, or iPOM. Montana began using the system in 2020. Its shortcomings, MacNulty and other experts say, are significant. “There’s a lot of things about the iPOM that aren’t clear, but one of the basic things is that we don’t know how accurate its predictions are,” MacNulty told me. “It’s just really that simple.” As last year’s hunt approached, iPOM showed that a harvest of 450 wolves could have no impact on the state’s population, or it could have a severe impact. The figure may as well have been plucked from thin air. FWP commissioners, according to the legislation Gianforte signed, were left to define a “sustainable” population goal. They never did.

“How in the world are you going to satisfy the intent of this law, which says you must reduce the population to sustainable level, if that sustainable level has not been defined?” MacNulty asked. “The law has two pieces to it. One says ‘reduce,’ the other piece says ‘to a sustainable level.’”

Gianforte and his allies in the Legislature may argue, and in some cases already are, that despite the measures they implemented, 273 dead wolves was well short of Montana’s intended target, and thus a more robust effort is required. MacNulty’s analysis — that Montana knew how many wolves it wanted to kill but didn’t know how many wolves it had — offers another potential explanation for last year’s failure to hit the target number of kills: “Maybe the population already was less than we thought it was.” The problem is that nobody can say for sure.

What the data clearly show is that Yellowstone’s northern border saw disproportionately high levels of wolf killing under Gianforte. Region 3, where the two districts north of the park are located, comprised 31 percent of the statewide wolf harvest total but only 18 percent of the state’s estimated population. Impacts of the no-holds-barred hunt extended beyond Montana’s border. Wyoming, for example, had counted Yellowstone’s Phantom Lake pack as residents, including the wolves as evidence of fidelity to its Endangered Species Act obligations. Yellowstone researchers believe that the pack was wiped out by Montana’s hunt. “The whole point of killing wolves in Montana is to reduce the Montana wolf population,” MacNulty said. “They’re killing the wrong wolves.”

As he dug into last winter’s hunt, MacNulty started a Twitter account to share his findings. His careful tracking reveals a wave of killing that unfolded with scant scientific justification or legitimacy. The picture he paints goes to the heart of what Biden administration officials may consider in determining whether Montana can still claim to have a responsible management framework in place when it comes to wolves. “I’ve always placed a lot of faith in Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ mission,” MacNulty said. Prior to Gianforte, the department was considered “an exceptionally professional organization,” he said. “I may not have agreed with everything, but by and large, I trusted them to get it right.”

The present moment has upended that reality. For MacNulty, the past year has served as a reminder that the animosities that surrounded the 1995 reintroduction, rooted in deeper historical realities about how the West became what it is today, never went away. “It’s always been there, and it will always continue to be there,” he said. Wolf advocates may have underestimated the depth and persistence of those sentiments. “Just because you reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone, it doesn’t mean that real strong feeling is going to dissipate,” MacNulty said. “If anything, it may have hardened.”

On the ground in Yellowstone this spring, I found that the events of last winter seemed to hang over conversations like a cloud. Gardiner, the northern entrance, is a small town. It’s not just the kind of place where locals know each other by name, they often know each other’s politics, and on Yellowstone’s border, politics and wolves go hand in hand. People who deal with those issues year-round can be guarded about what they say and who they name. They share a community, and passions are running as high now as they have been since the reintroduction.

The most common sentiment I heard in the park was frustration, tinged with weary, shell-shocked anxiety. What I really wanted to understand happened north of Yellowstone’s border. As I dug into the hunt, one name kept coming up as a place to go for answers.

Grandfathered into what is today national forest land, Hell’s A-Roarin’ Outfitters is based a half-mile north of Yellowstone in Jardine, an unincorporated village with a population of 41. Offering guided hunting and horseback trips, the company is owned by Warren and Susan Johnson. Warren is a prominent local figure with a long record of criticism targeting Yellowstone’s wolf reintroduction. His company’s core attraction is access to Deckard Flats, a wide-open plateau where, for generations, herds of elk — and in recent decades, packs of wolves — have exited Yellowstone’s protective bubble and where much of last year’s wolf killing took place.

Hell’s A-Roarin’ had already acknowledged that some its clients participated in the hunt, but I wanted to better understand how the events of last year looked from the perspective of Montana outfitters. I contacted Hell’s A-Roarin’ to see if Warren was available for an interview. Susan wrote back almost immediately. “I’m sorry, he’s never been accurately reported in any interview and is no longer doing them. …….always an agenda!” she said. She knew of no one in her community who would be open to speaking.

The exchange was polite but disappointing. It also turned out to be somewhat incorrect. There was at least one outfitter in Southwest Montana willing to talk wolves. His name was Ralph Johnson. He was Warren’s brother.

The dirt road to the Hell’s A Roarin’ lodge twists and turns, offering stunning views of the landscape below. Eventually, you come to a turnoff marked with a wooden pole. Tacked to the pole are two signs bearing arrows pointing in divergent directions: The road to the right takes you to Hell’s A Roarin’. The road to the left takes you to Specimen Creek Outfitters. Specimen Creek is Ralph’s place. I pulled into the property one morning after watching wolves in the park. Wooden cabins with green roofs dotted a circular clearing, ringed by towering pines. A blue heeler named Sage trotted out to say hi. A man in worn blue jeans, a Western shirt, and a cowboy hat followed her.


Ralph Johnson poses for a photo with his dog, Sage, at Specimen Creek Outfitters in Jardine, Mont., on June 1, 2022.

Photo: Ryan Devereaux/The Intercept

We took a seat under the awning of a cabin. Ralph told me that his father, Vernon, started the family business nearly 100 years ago. It’s the only kind of work Ralph has ever known. “My whole entire life,” he told me. Following Vernon’s death, fissures emerged between the boys. Warren went one way, Ralph another. They haven’t spoken in years. Ralph’s view on Yellowstone’s wolves is the polar opposite of his brother’s. He’d be happy to see hunting north of the park shut down altogether. For him, what happened last year was too sickening to witness again.

“I friggin’ watched that thing, and it’s not a wolf hunt,” Ralph told me. “It’s killing is what it is.”

Much of that killing, Ralph said, was orchestrated by a crew of around 20 locals he recognized from Gardiner, Emigrant, and Livingston. He knew many of the men and watched in his hikes with Sage how they attempted to lure wolves out of the park to mow them down with military-style rifles. He personally stumbled on the skinned corpses of three wolves in the snowy fields of Deckard Flats and elsewhere. The men were visibly on their phones during their hunts, Ralph said. Using a phone to coordinate a kill is a violation of Montana law and the principle of fair chase. FWP confirmed in email that it had received reports of hunters using two-way communications during the wolf hunt north of Yellowstone but that the department issued no citations in conjunction with the complaints. The brazenness, Ralph argued, spoke to a confidence that no one would challenge them. “Who’s going to catch them?” he asked. “We only have one game warden in this whole area, and it’s a big area, and most of the time he’s not here.”

“All these people know that,” he said. “They’re taking advantage of a weak system that we got up here.”

Ralph has had a front-row seat to the wolf fight since the beginning. The elk issue is key to understanding that story, he explained. “If I told you there wasn’t an effect, I’d be lying to ya,” he said. “There was an effect.” Ralph remembers the billboards that greeted hunters visiting Gardiner when he was growing up, welcoming them to the elk-hunting capital of the world. Wolves were entirely removed from the landscape; grizzlies and mountain lions were barely hanging on. Yellowstone’s Northern Range elk herd numbered in the tens of thousands and, like clockwork, migrated across Deckard Flats and areas north of the park, where they were met with firing lines of waiting hunters, many of whom were local outfitters’ paying clients. “I totally remember them years,” Ralph said. Things are different now, but not for the reasons the anti-wolf interests whispering in Gianforte’s ear would have people believe. “There’s a group of anti-wolfers that’s always saying that the wolves have decimated the elk,” Ralph said. “They have not.”

The winters immediately following the reintroduction were indeed rough on Yellowstone’s elk. “It’s like a shock to their system,” Ralph said. “They didn’t know what this creature was, and they didn’t know how to handle it.” As time went on, however, the elk adjusted their migration patterns, moved in smaller groups, and made themselves harder to hunt. Ralph’s observations echo decades of research on the subject. The animals found their way to areas where pressure from hunting — nonhuman and human alike — was less intense, namely on private lands. “There’s more elk down in Paradise Valley than there ever has been in modern human history,” Ralph said, adding that while ranchers complain about the abundance of the animals, “they won’t let the hunters on to thin the elk out.”

“It don’t make sense to me,” Ralph said. “But as far as the wolves destroying the elk population, that’s just BS.”

In years past, Ralph said, clients accepted that their elk expedition might not end in success. These days, they are far less accommodating. “It’s like you’re a babysitter most of the time,” he said. Often, the hunters he meets not only expect an elk, they expect a prime bull elk at peak breeding age. While they vigorously target those animals, they simultaneously blame wolves for their decline — this, despite decades of research showing that Yellowstone wolves overwhelmingly hunt female elk beyond their breeding years.

Ralph recalled a scene during a heavy winter a decade ago. Bulls were flowing out of the park into an area near Jardine. Hunters lined up to knock them down. “The next year,” Ralph said, “all these anti-wolfers were bitching at a fish and game meeting because wolves were killing the elk.” If that were the case, he noted, he would have made a fortune collecting the skulls and antlers the wolves left behind — he found one. He said, “It’s the hunters that killed them.”

In a decade, Ralph’s family’s business will mark its 100th anniversary. The milestone matters to him, and he’s determined to get there. If it weren’t a part of his life story, however, things might be different. “I’d quit right now,” he said. Ralph has had hunters tell him, with a straight face, that wolf tolerance will lead to wolves stealing human babies. “You just have to bite your tongue,” he said. Ralph knows that among Montana outfitters, his view on wolves is a minority opinion. “I pretty much guarantee if you went talk to every outfitter in Montana, they’re gonna tell you different,” he said. “They just get violent over it.” He speaks his mind all the same. Ralph believes that it’s important to stand up to the interests having their way with the state, especially if next year’s hunt ends up looking anything like the last.

In a sign of the mounting pressure that Montana is facing, FWP released a proposal this month to reintroduce wolf-killing quotas north of Yellowstone’s boundaries for this year’s hunt — albeit limits five times higher than what they were when Gianforte came into office. The additional measures that the governor legalized — baiting, snaring, and the rest of it — will remain on the books. Whether Gianforte’s hand-picked commissioners opt for a more hard-line approach remains to be seen. The deadline for public comment is Thursday.

Meanwhile, the outcome of the federal relisting review still looms. It’s possible that the Biden administration will find that Gianforte and his counterparts in Idaho went too far and that the states can no longer be trusted to manage their wolves. While advocates on the ground clamor for that outcome, they worry that the administration, looking out across a hostile midterm political landscape, may be less than eager to revive one the West’s most heated culture-war battles.

What the pro-wolf contingent needs now is courage, Ralph told me before we parted ways. “They let these anti-wolfers intimidate them,” he said. “If I was one of those wolf groups, I’d be out hiking every day in this area. To hell with those guys. I wouldn’t let these guys push me out. It’s national forest.” Ralph does not advocate picking physical fights: “What I’m saying is, don’t let them dominate this place. Because that’s what’s happening. I see that. It’s getting worse.”

“If you run from them guys, they’re gonna take advantage,” Ralph warned. “It’s like a mean dog — if you show fear, he’s gonna come after you.”

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