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Travels With Wolf Patrol: Montana                                                                                                       Next Post 

It’s a 20-hour drive from Wisconsin to Gardiner, MT, and the gates of Yellowstone National Park, but when you’re carrying a lot of camping gear and video equipment, traveling by car is better than traveling by plane. Rod Coronado took the lead in his beat up old sedan, a few other activists followed in their small hatchback, and I drove my SUV while some guy I didn’t know slept in my passenger seat. I guess he was there as a new crewmember, and as somebody looking for a ride back west to Oregon.


It took two and a half days to complete the drive. My companion slept much of the way. We camped somewhere near Luverne, MN, and later, in South Dakota near the border of Montana.


The Wolf Patrol crew was headed to Gardiner to monitor hunting activity at the edge of Yellowstone. The Montana hunt was much more orderly than the WI hunt, with specific “wolf management units” (WMUs) that designated how many wolves could be “harvested” in any given area. Coronado and crew were most concerned with WMUs 313 & 316, where hunters could pick off wolves as soon as they stepped over the Yellowstone National Park boundary. The quota was low, maybe 5 or 6 wolves between these units, but the fact that hunters could kill wolves at the doorstep of the one place they were allowed to exist without the threat of major human interference, seemed wrong to the crew. 

We arrived later in the afternoon, but Coronado didn’t want to waste any time. The patrol started immediately. We drove east from Gardiner towards the small community of Jardine. The views here are spectacular, and it’s possible to see elk herds and other animals migrating out of Yellowstone from numerous locations on the Jardine road. The Wolf Patrol crew knew this; they also knew of a few hunting outfitters that were lucky enough to have secured land right at the edge of the park. These outfitters supplied guides, lodging, and a real western adventure to anyone who wanted to have their own Montana hunting experience.


Most of the hunters operating at the edge of Yellowstone are looking for that big bull elk (elk, like wolves, get very big inside the boundaries of the park). Guides advise their clients that they should purchase a “wolf tag” with their elk license so that if they see a wolf they can take a shot. And with elk migrating to their wintering ranges outside of the park, wolves are likely to follow.


It didn’t take long for us to spot hunters, in their blaze orange, trotting along on horseback. Coronado explained that guides typically take clients out in the pre-dawn and evening hours, allowing for rest in the middle of the day when animals are frequently less active. We also saw lines of hunters leaving one of the bigger outfitters, but– not wanting to be noticed, the Wolf Patrol crew stayed at a distance. My longest camera lens was no match for the wide-open spaces of Montana, but I did manage to snap a few photos of elk hanging from the outfitter’s game stands.

That evening we saw hunters moving up and down the partially wooded slopes adjacent to Yellowstone. Most rode horses, and they were easy to pick out in their blaze orange. We made note of their location and headed to a slightly lower elevation to set up camp for the night. We had to get to bed early as we were planning to get up at 3:30 am.

The Wolf Patrol crew at the edge of Yellowstone National Park.

A bird's eye view of a hunting outfitter's camp near the border of Yellowstone National Park.

After a cold couple of hours in our sleeping bags we were up making coffee and eating oatmeal. We weren’t sure what the hunters’ morning routines were as we had only observed their evening activities the night before, but we didn’t want to miss anything. It was dark, and it was quite, but a mere 20 minutes after getting out of our tents we heard the crunch of truck tires on gravel roads and the clanking of horse trailers that the trucks had in tow.


At this point, breakfast was over, and Coronado pressured us all to jump in our vehicles to follow. Unfortunately, the hunting party had gone by pretty fast and we weren’t sure exactly where they were headed. We split up into a few vehicles and checked every trailhead in a 10-mile radius. The hunters were nowhere to be found and the crew was feeling a little bummed out. Finding hunters in Wisconsin had not been an easy task, but finding hunters in Montana seemed like it might be impossible. But just then, when we weren’t sure what to do next, the crew found another trailhead on the map– one we had seemingly overlooked. We sped off in its direction hoping to find something, and after driving down a long gravel road, we found the horse trailer that had sped by us that morning. We approached cautiously, driving slowly for the last couple hundred yards, but soon realized that the trucks and the horse trailers were empty. The hunters were still out in the field! All we had to do was wait for them to return!


It was 8 or 9 am at this point and still quite cold. The Wolf Patrol crew set about making a fire and talking about what they would do if the hunters came out with a wolf. No one wanted them to emerge from the mountains with a wolf, but a big part of the campaign revolved around the idea of exposing these hunts through video and photography. If the hunters did bring a wolf out, we were hoping to get as much imagery as possible.


We thought we’d have to wait a few hours for the hunters to reappear, but we were wrong. Within ten or so minutes of our arrival we saw the first of the guides coming back on his horse. I hurried to get two cameras set up with long lenses to see what “game” they did get. One-by-one the hunters emerged. They made their way down the rugged mountain trail quite slowly, and from what I could tell, they didn’t have anything. No elk. And certainly no wolves. It was almost as if you could feel their mood. They moved with the slowness of defeat. 

When they did make it back to their trucks they wasted no time loading their horses and getting ready to take off, but at least one of them was glaring at the Wolf Patrol crew. The crew was approximately 50 yards away– with me a bit further back on a rise where I was working the camera, when a young hunter with long hair started to walk towards Coronado! I grabbed my second camera and rushed off in their direction hoping to get their interaction on video while cursing the fact that I hadn’t properly set up the lav mics and that I wasn’t completely ready for this encounter (but hey, that’s documentary work– you’re never ready!).


I caught up to them just as Coronado offered a greeting, “Hey, seen any wolves,” he asked. The hunter replied that he had not, and introduced himself. It seemed as if things were going to be friendly, but there was tension in the air, and I was on high alert!

I moved around the men as if I was a human tripod. Looking through the viewfinder of my camera I could tell that Rod and the hunter were sizing each other up. They offered a few more words and circled each other as if they were wild animals that didn’t want to turn their backs and be blindsided. The Wolf Patrol crew stood 20 yards back and Coronado said, loudly, “we’re Yellowstone Wolf Patrol. We’re here to monitor the hunt. We’re against wolf hunting but we’re not trying to stop you, we just want to get pictures.”


The hunter responded by saying that, “you should only take them from our good sides,” and the mood seemed to lighten. Coronado invited the hunter to the fire the crew had built, and he seemed as if he might join us in a more robust conversation, but then he snapped, “you gotta wear your oranges or you might get shot,” and walked out of sight. The crew was confused. He seemed as if he had wanted to talk, but then he kept on trucking as if he was intimidated by the prospect of conversing with the group. 

Hunters return to their trucks after unsuccessfully scouting for elk and wolves at the border of Yellowstone National Park.  

Hunters entertain themselves by taking photos of the Wolf Patrol.  

Five minutes passed and the hunter reappeared from the brush below the fire. He seemed much more relaxed and approached the group to explain that he was a seasonal hunting guide from Seattle. He enjoyed the wilds of Montana and told us that this was his last hunt of the year since he had to return to the city. There was more small talk about dance clubs in Seattle and the types of clients he took out into the field. It seemed as if we had stumbled upon a truly metropolitan individual who just happened to have a penchant for hunting.


After the hunter returned to his truck the crew joked about the hunter’s Seattle home and his long hair. The crew dubbed him the “hippie hunter.” A few of the women in the crew admitted that he was really handsome, and that this was problematic for them, since he was a hunter. Then, the hunters’ trucks fired up and they sped off as quickly as they had driven past our camp that morning.


The crew joked that the entire north Yellowstone community was now going to know about their presence and that they better avoid the bars in town that evening.


The next few days were a blur. There were more trailheads, more stakeouts, and hundreds of miles of dirt roads. The Wolf Patrol crew hiked along the border of Yellowstone National Park looking for wolf tracks and also for a sign that hunters had been in the area. We monitored the Montana Fish and Wildlife page on the web to see if there were any updates about the hunt.


At some point, after returning to town to get gas and refuel our stomachs at Gardiner’s Tumbleweed Café, Coronado’s phone started buzzing with incoming text messages. Coronado thought it might be locals trying to contact him with info about the hunt, or perhaps a series of messages from another group of Wolf Patrollers who were off trying to locate other trailheads, but in truth, the texts had come from hunters that were angry the Wolf Patrol was in town.


The first text said, “you’re watching us, and we’re watching you. You’ve been in our spotting scopes for days.”


The second text said, “I shoot wolves” and was copied and sent to Coronado’s phone hundreds of times. 

Hunters "troll" the Wolf Patrol by sending 200 inflammatory texts. . 

The interaction the crew had just had with the “hippie hunter” had been an anomaly. It started off tense but diffused itself. These texts proved that the tension was still there, and that it was rising. Coronado and the crew were disturbed. They didn’t say much, but it was evident that a kind of heaviness had settled upon them. And that’s when the phone call came in.


Hunters on the other line said, “we’ve got two wolves and we’re coming out. Where are you guys?”


They were taunting the crew.  


Unfortunately, the Wolf Patrol never did find those hunters, and they never saw a wolf being carted off from a trailhead to the local taxidermy. But they did identify an issue with the hunt. The quota in the Wolf Management Units adjacent to Yellowstone National Park had filled, but the hunt had not been closed. The website indicated that the hunt was still open, but the crew felt as if the zones that had met their quota should be closed.


Coronado called the Montana Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to raise this concern. Although their had been reports of wolves taken in the zones adjacent to Yellowstone, not all of the reports had been confirmed yet and the FWS would not close the zones until they had full confirmation.


The Wolf Patrol crew was not happy with this. Perhaps this was just an unfortunate consequence of the process, but it seemed as if the quota could easily be exceeded while the FWS waited for full verification of the earlier reports. The Wolf Patrol crew wanted an immediate closure, but the FWS was moving at the speed of the government.


When the zones were finally closed it was time to head back east. The Wolf Patrol crew had put in the time they had and needed to get back to work, family, and other obligations. Spirits were somewhat low, and the crew had not been able to produce an image of a slaughtered Yellowstone wolf, but there was a victory of some sort. The Wolf Patrol had exposed the fact that hunting quotas are often exceeded and that there was no good way to alert hunters to the fact that they had to lower their rifles once a Wolf Management Unit was closed.


In the end, it seemed like the Yellowstone wolves that stepped over the border of the park were prey to both trophy hunters and an inadequate management system.

Read about Operation Wolf Patrol director Joe Brown's attempts to photograph wolves here. 

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