How to Kill a Wolf - An Undercover Report from the Idaho Coyote and Wolf Derby
I had come to the town of Salmon, Idaho—population 3,000—to enter as a contestant in the first annual Idaho Coyote and Wolf Derby. Over the course of two days in late December, several hundred hunters would compete to kill as many wolves and coyotes as...
Opening photo by Martyn Stewart. All other photos by the author
The best way to fatally wound a wolf without killing it instantly is to shoot it in the gut, preferably with armor-piercing ammunition. Unlike soft lead-tipped bullets, which mushroom inside the body cavity and kill quickly, heavy-jacketed AP ammo pierces the target and blows out the other side.
This has two advantages: The first is that, especially with a gut shot, the animal will suffer. It will bleed out slowly, run a mile or so in terrified panic, and collapse. Then it will die. The second advantage is that, if you’re hunting illegally (out of season, at night with a spotlight, or on land where you shouldn’t), there is little forensic evidence for game wardens to gather. No bullet will be found in the cadaver. Most importantly, the animal will have traveled some distance from where it was shot, so that tracing the site of the shooting is almost impossible.
I gleaned these helpful tips from a nice old man at a saloon in Salmon, Idaho, which last December was the site of the first annual Coyote and Wolf Derby. I had come to this rural town—population 3,000—to enter as a contestant in the derby. Over the course of two days in late December, several hundred hunters would compete to kill as many wolves and coyotes as possible. There were two $1,000 prizes to be had, one for the most coyotes slain and the other for the largest single wolf carcass. Children were encouraged to enter, with special awards for youths aged 10–11 and 12–14 listed on the promotional flyer. The derby’s organizer, a nonprofit sporting group called Idaho for Wildlife, advertised that the event was to be historic: the first wolf-killing contest held in the US since 1974.
Hunting for food is one thing, and in some cases hunting helps to keep overabundant species like deer in ecological check. But the reason we have too many deer in the US in the first place is simple: the steady decline of big predators like the mountain lion and—you guessed it—the wolf. The fact is that we need wolves in ecosystems. So why a killing contest to rid the land of them?
After digging into the wolf-hate literature featured on Idaho for Wildlife’s website, I wondered whether the residents of Salmon were looking to kill wolves out of spite. They hated these creatures, and I wanted to understand why.
Besides killing wolves, one of the group’s core missions, according to its website, is to “fight against all legal and legislative attempts by the animal rights and anti-gun organizations who are attempting to take away our rights and freedoms under the Constitution of the United States of America.” The website also suggested that media coverage of the event was not welcome. The only way I’d be able to properly report on the derby, I figured, was to go undercover as a competing hunter. So I showed up in Salmon a few days before the event, paid the $20 sign-up fee, and officially became part of the slaughter.
The derby called for hunters to work in two-person teams. In the weeks leading up to the competition I recruited pro-wolf activists Brian Ertz and his sister Natalie Ertz, native Idahoans who have worked for local conservation groups. Rounding out our teams was Brian’s friend Bryan Walker, a gnarled former Marine and an Idaho lawyer who has studied shamanism and claims to have an ability to speak with animals.
The nice old man in the bar, whose name was Cal Black, bought the four of us a round of drinks when we told him we were in town for the derby. Cal had grown up on a ranch near town, and his thoughts on wolves reflected those of most other locals we met. Salmon is livestock country—the landscape is riddled with cows and sheep—and ranchers blame wolves for huge numbers of livestock deaths. Therefore wolves needed to be dispatched with extreme prejudice. The derby was a natural extension of this sentiment.
“Gut-shoot every goddamn last one of them wolves,” Cal told us. He wished a similar fate on “tree huggers,” who, in Cal’s view, mostly live in New York City. “You know what I’d like to see? Take the wolves and plant ’em in Central Park, ’cause they impose it on us to have these goddamn wolves! Bullshit! It’s said a wolf won’t attack you. Well, goddamn, these tree huggers don’t know what. I want wolves to eat them goddamn tree huggers. Maybe they’ll learn something!”
We all raised a glass to the tree huggers’ getting their due. I fought the urge to tell Cal that I live in New York part-time, and that in college Natalie trained as an arborist and had actually hugged trees for a living. Her brother, who is 31 and studying to be a lawyer in Boise, Idaho, had warned me about the risks of going undercover when I broached the idea over the phone. As a representative for the nonprofit Western Watersheds Project, which has lobbied for wolf protections, he’d attended numerous public meetings about “wolf management” in communities like Salmon. “Salmon is the belly of the beast,” he told me. “There is not a more hostile place. It’s Mordor.”
Brian’s former boss at the Western Watersheds Project, executive director Jon Marvel, has received death threats for speaking out in favor of wolves and against the powerful livestock industry. Many pro-wolf activists across the American West, especially those who have publicly opposed the ranching industry, have reported similar threats and acts of aggression—tires slashed, homes vandalized, windows busted out with bricks in the night. Idaho for Wildlife’s opinion on the situation is made clear on its website: “Excess predator’s [sic] and environmentalists should go first!”
Prepping for the derby, we disguised ourselves according to the local style: camo pants and jackets, wool caps, balaclavas, binoculars, and heavy boots. When he wasn’t mystically communicating with elk, Walker enjoyed hunting them. He didn’t look out of place in Salmon, carrying his M4 rifle with a 30-round magazine and a Beretta .45 on his hip. He loaned me his bolt-action .300 Win Mag with a folding bipod, while Brian carried a .30-06 with a Leupold scope. Natalie, who is tall and good-looking, was armed only with a camera and played the part of a domesticated wife “here for the party,” as she put it.
At the derby registration the night before the killing was to commence, we were so convincing that the organizers didn’t even bother to ask for our hunting licenses or wolf permits. Instead they suggested spots in the surrounding mountains where we could find wolves to shoot illegally.
From left to right: Bryan Walker, Brian Ertz, and Natalie Ertz
In Wolves and the Wolf Myth in American Literature, S. K. Robisch presents the wolf as a “mystical force in the human mind,” one that for thousands of years has been associated with the purity of bloodlust, the unhinged cruelty of nature. The wolf as mythological super-predator brings terror and chaos, devouring our young, our old, the weak, the innocent, and the foolish, operating through trickery and deceit.
From Matthew 7:15: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” Little Red Riding Hood loses her grandmother to a cross-dressing wolf, and the Three Little Pigs pay the price as well. In the late Middle Ages the Roman Catholic Church declared the wolf an agent of the Devil, or possibly the shape-shifting manifestation of Satan himself. And of course the werewolf, a human turned beast by the contagion of a bite, also lived in the imagination as a demonic figure, killing for sport under the light of the full moon, indiscriminate and lunatic.
In Anglo-Saxon and the Germanic languages, certain words for wolf—warg, warc, verag—were also used to describe bandits, outlaws, and evil spirits. In Swedish, the word varg simply meant “everything that is wrong.” Even Teddy Roosevelt, the conservationist president and lover of the wilderness, referred to wolves as “the archtype of ravin [sic], the beast of waste and desolation.”
In reality, Homo sapiens shares a long and intimate relationship with Canis lupus. The gray wolf was the first animal to be domesticated out of the wild, long before the cow, horse, or goat. Its direct descendant is classified as Canis lupus familiaris, better known as the common dog, which, despite its wide subset of breeds, is almost genetically identical to the wolf. The bear, the tiger, the lion—feared predators of the human race, even today far more dangerous to man than wolves—never came out of the dark to join the fire circles of early hominids. The wolf did, though the humans in its midst became food on some occasions.
It’s theorized that wolves and humans, some 20,000 years ago, hunted the same prey—large herbivores—and, like us, wolves worked in packs. We fed at their kills, and they fed at ours. Antagonism gave way to mutualism, symbiosis, cooperation.
Around 8,000 BC, however, humans began to domesticate livestock and gather in villages. The wolf was no longer our friend, as it stalked and devoured the sheep and cows we now kept as property. Hatred of the beast was born, and it grew in proportion to our divorce from the wild.
Western man, armed with gunpowder and greedy for land, proved from the moment he arrived in the New World to be a more capable beast of waste and desolation, as predators of all kinds—the wolf, the cougar, the coyote, the black bear, the grizzly, the lynx, the wolverine—fell before his march. Wolves were shot on sight, trapped, snared, fed carcasses laced with poison or broken glass, their pups gassed or set on fire in their dens. “Such behavior amazed Native Americans,” writes wildlife journalist Ted Williams. “Their explanation for it was that, among palefaces, it was a manifestation of insanity.”
The sprawling roads, farms, towns, and cities of the young republic completed the job by systematically razing the wolf’s habitat. By 1900, wolves had disappeared east of the Mississippi. By the 1950s, they could only be found in isolated regions of the American West, with perhaps a dozen wolves remaining in the contiguous 48 states, compared with a pre-Columbian population estimated at several hundred thousand.
The point of this slaughter was not to protect human beings, although this remains the enduring perception. Only two fatal wolf attacks on Homo sapiens in North America have been reported during the past 100 years, with perhaps a few more over the course of the 19th century (the records prior to 1900 are uncertain and the stories undocumented, often embellished and tending toward the folkloric). A 2002 study conducted by the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research reviewed the history of wolf predation on humans in Europe, Asia, and the US from 1500 to the present and found that wolf attacks were “extremely rare,” that “most attacks have been by rabid wolves,” and that “humans are not part of their normal prey.” Wolves in the United States died at our hands for the most part because of the ancient grievance: They ate our cattle and sheep, representing viscerally that which could not be tamed.
Then, in 1974, wolves in the United States got a reprieve. The passage of the Endangered Species Act the previous year had cleared the path for Congress to declare the animals endangered, making it illegal to hunt them. Wolves had survived by the thousands in the forests, mountains, and prairies of western Canada, and now, protected from widespread slaughter in the US, portions of the population began a slow march of recolonization, dispersing south from Alberta and British Columbia and into Montana. In 1995, Congress expedited this process by mandating the reintroduction of captured Canadian wolves to the mountains of Idaho and Wyoming.
Thereafter, wolves thrived as never before in our recorded history, and ecologists noted with astonishment the beneficial effects on ecosystems in the West. In Yellowstone National Park, a centerpiece of this reintroduction, wolves pared the overabundant populations of elk, which had stripped the park’s trees and grasses. With fewer elk, the flora returned, and the rejuvenated landscape created habitats for dozens of other creatures: beaver in the streams, songbirds in the understory, butterflies among the flowers.
Such was the perception of success that by 2009 the US wolf population was declared fully recovered. In 2011, when Congress rescinded the wolves’ protected status, scores of biologists, ecologists, and wildlife scientists protested the decision. Critics observed that the removal of Canis lupus from the endangered species list had been accomplished mostly due to the lobbying efforts of the livestock industry. For the first time since 1974, wolves across the Northern Rocky Mountains—in Idaho, Wyoming, Montana—were legally hunted, trapped, and shot with vengeance. The winter hunting seasons decimated whole packs. At the behest of ranchers, the US government joined in the slaughter, dispatching predator-control agents from the federal Wildlife Services.
The view of wolves as vermin bent on stealing ranchers’ livelihood has carried through to the present, though little evidence supports this stigma. The number of cattle and sheep lost to wolves and other predators each year is negligible. In 2010, just 0.23 percent of cattle in the US died from “carnivore depredations” (as wolf attacks on livestock are officially categorized).
And it didn’t matter that aggressive “predator management” has no basis in ecological science. “The myth we’ve been fed is that predators like wolves need to be hunted because otherwise they’ll grow out of control, exponentially,” said Brooks Fahy, director of the nonprofit Predator Defense, in Oregon. “But no scientific study backs this up. Wolves self-regulate if left alone.” Wolf management, Fahy said, “is a form of rationalized madness.”
Proud derby contestants displaying a pair of coyotes
“You going for wolf?” a cowboy with a big hat and a smile the size of Texas asked us when he saw our camo jackets and the truck bristling with rifles. We nodded. “Good!”
We were at a country store in the village of Old Sawmill Station, Idaho, and the walls of the store were festooned with pictures of hunters holding dead predators as trophies: handsome bears and cougars and wolves shot to tatters. In some of the pictures, petite wives gripped the slumped cadavers of wolves twice their size.
The proprietor told us that the best place to find wolves was up a dirt road along the east fork of the Salmon River. “Once you get up past Boulder Creek, look for tracks,” he said.
We drove into the mountains, tracing the river’s east fork. Brian passed the time with a joke about a cowboy and a ranch hand riding a fence line in Idaho: “They find a sheep tangled in the barbed wire, and the cowboy jumps off his horse, unzips, and has his sweet way with the creature. He pulls out, turns to the ranch hand: ‘You want some of this?’ The ranch hand says, ‘Sure, but do I have to get tangled up in the wire?’”
Brian had hunted elk and antelope in the backcountry from a young age. By his early teens he’d come to the realization that cattle and sheep dominated the landscape to the detriment of almost every other species that depends on grass to survive. In his 20s he spent five years as media director of the Western Watersheds Project, a group whose chief enemy is the ranching industry. Watersheds are ruined by the presence of too many cows. In fact, cows mess up just about everything in the ecosystems of the arid West. Wherever domesticated livestock graze, the result is less to eat for the wild ungulates—elk, moose, deer, antelope.
The road along the river led up high among jagged peaks—the loveliness of the place made us quiet. We slung our rifles and hiked up hills and little dirt roads and down gullies, looking for wolf prints in the snow.
Walker was our tracker. He’d grown up in a family of ranchers in rural Idaho, on a farm with 200 head of sheep. A hunter for most of his adult life, he told me he had shot “pretty much everything,” until one night in 2004, at the age of 40. He was sitting in a hotel room in Spokane, Washington, and a coyote sidled up directly under his window and starting howling and didn’t stop. “Right in the middle of downtown Spokane!” he said. “That was the first time I understood that animals were talking to me.”
From that point on, his view of animals changed. If he hunted, it would be honorably, deliberately, and thoughtfully. He talked about “the responsibility of the predator.” He spoke of the “ethical shot,” taking an animal down with one bullet, inflicting the least suffering. He told me how one afternoon not long ago he’d been bow hunting in Idaho, chasing down an elk high on a ridgeline. “A magpie flew up from way down in the valley,” he said. “I swear it must have been 2,000 yards he flew, and he comes up to me and perches on a branch and starts making sounds I’d never heard a magpie make. We just talked and talked.”
On day one, we found no signs of wolves, neither tracks nor scat. Back at the truck, empty-handed, we cracked beers and lit up cigarettes. Before too long, a growling pickup appeared in the distance, trawling. We tensed. As it slowed to a stop, the two young men in the cab eyed us.
“You doing the derby?” they asked, and we nodded. “Where you been today?”
There was a long, uncomfortable pause. I sucked at my beer and glanced at Brian, who was chain-smoking. We’d been lazy hunters. Walker took up the slack and lied marvelously. We’d hunted up and down the east fork of the Salmon River, he explained, and up and down this and that canyon, hungry for a kill but finding nothing. The two men stuffed tobacco into their cheeks and spat. We talked about how hard it is to track wolves and wondered why the hell they wouldn’t show themselves. The men reported the word from the local ranchers: If any of us derby folk happened to see a wolf on their property, we should shoot it on sight and forget about the legalities.
After they pulled away, Walker let out a sigh. “Those are the kinds of guys I’ve known all my life,” he said. “That’s my family right there. They like to go out and kill. They’re not evil. They’re just… unaware.”
That same day, a veteran BBC wildlife sound technician and videographer named Martyn Stewart, who had traveled to Salmon to cover the derby for his own purposes, found himself drawing unwanted attention.
The first problem was his accent—Martyn is Australian, and a foreigner in Salmon is serious business. “We stick together in this town,” a wolf hunter had told him when he arrived. “We ain’t got no niggers in this town. You see any niggers in this town?”
The second giveaway was his earring. He’d gone to a gun shop on Main Street to find out where the derby registration was to be held. Martyn told me later that the shopkeeper had looked at him as if he were deranged. “I suggest you take out the earring,” the shopkeeper said, “because you look like a fag.”
At the registration he showed up in tennis shoes and a yellow North Face jacket. I overheard a brooding hunter as he nodded in Martyn’s direction. “Ain’t got no right being here.” After registration, Martyn drove to his hotel shadowed by a pickup, which looped around in the parking lot and drove off when he emerged from his car.
The next morning he went to a local coffeehouse where the waitress told him she hadn’t heard wolves howling in at least two years. She seemed sad about it. Two hunters in camo then walked in and sat at the table opposite him, staring. Eventually, Martyn made eye contact and said hello. They didn’t reply. Instead they stared for 40 minutes, ordering neither food nor drink. When he got up, they got up. When he left, they left.
More dead coyotes
Idaho for Wildlife had arranged for a closing ceremony at sundown on the second day of the contest, beginning at 4 PM. The assumption was that dozens of wolves would be hauled in. The judging was set to take place behind the ranching supply depot where we’d registered, a place called Steel & Ranch. “It sounds like an S&M club for cows,” Brian snorted. There was a meat hook from which kills would hang as derby judges measured and weighed the cadavers to determine the winning teams.
We got in the truck and were headed north toward town when Natalie yelled out that she saw something moving across the broken snow in a field a few hundred yards away. “I don’t think it was a deer,” she said. Walker slammed the truck to a halt, and we leaped out with spotting scopes and binoculars and one rifle, the .300 Win Mag, which I carried.
“Coyote?” asked Walker, glassing the field.
“That’s no coyote,” Brian said. I caught the animal in the scope of my rifle.
“That’s a wolf,” said Natalie. “Look at the color, and the size, and that tail.” She paused and lowered her chin, smiling. “I haven’t seen a wolf in more than two years!”
We watched as the animal moseyed along some 400 yards away, sniffing the ground, easeful in the afternoon light. It stopped and raised its head and stared in our direction, its shape silhouetted against the snow. I felt like it was looking right at me, up through the scope and down through my bones to my toes.
Then it was over. In a flash, the animal slipped from our sight, vanishing into the patchwork of the sagebrush and snow. The river trilled, and the sun smiled down through the mountains.
Natalie and Brian agreed that the sighting was an anomaly. “It’s fucking incredible,” said Natalie. “In the middle of the day, by the side of the road, this close to town, this close to a place like Salmon, with all these hunters out… It’s just…” Words failed her. She looked as though she were about to cry.
Natalie had spent the past five years watching, tracking, and listening to the packs in the mountains of Idaho. She had seen at least 20 wolves in that time. She’d fallen in love for the usual reasons that wolf-lovers describe. Wolves, after all, are not unlike human beings. They’re monogamous, loyal, mate for life, and carefully raise their young in strong family units, with an alpha male and female at the top of the pack. It could be said that what we love about wolves is their similarities with humans.
Natalie had howled with the animals and heard their answers, and she had watched the alphas pair up and raise pups. She’d watched the pups play and thrive and learn from their parents, bringing her ten-year-old son out to see the wolves, listen to their talk, and try to parse the meaning. Now, after a two-year absence, she’d seen a wolf again.
“Let’s try a haze,” she said. I looked at her. The purpose of hazing wildlife—usually accomplished with a few shots fired in the air—is to dishabituate them from the presence of humans, to let them know we’re not their friends. We’d discussed this possibility. It would be a violation of Idaho state law, which mandates that citizens can shoot wolves but cannot “intentionally harass, bait, drive, or disturb any animal for the purpose of disrupting lawful pursuit or taking thereof.”
Walker, who’d been a prosecutor in Idaho, warned that the law could construe a haze during the derby as an egregious act. “Fuck it,” I said. “The state of Idaho can extradite me.” I loaded a round in the Win Mag, aimed high above the brush where we’d last seen the wolf, and fired. The report caromed off the hills, and we heard the bullet zing when it hit.
“You hit him! You fuckin’ got him!” Brian cried, peering through his scope.
I felt like I’d been shot.
“Just fucking with you, Ketcham. Look, he’s moving!” The shot had flushed the animal from cover. “Running fast, over that fence line, up the draw! Wait, there’s two! Yeah, two! And they got the message.”
The pair of wolves, lithe and beautiful and full of strength and speed, sprinted up a draw into the distant hills, up into the mountains—600 yards, 700 yards, 1,000 yards, gone.
It was the first time I had seen wolves in the wild, and given current trends, it felt like winning the lottery. The Humane Society of the United States reports that nearly 1,400 wolves have been killed since the 2011 delisting, almost half of them in Idaho alone. This is out of a population in the Northern Rocky Mountains that had risen as high as 1,700 just a few years ago. The animals are disappearing, and the packs are splintering into smaller groups, their viability compromised. Natalie told me that the two animals we’d seen were most likely the remnants of a family whose kin had already been hung from a meat hook.
Despite the contestants’ best efforts, not a single wolf was killed as a result of the Salmon derby, and the ceremony at Steel & Ranch had an air of failure.
We stood around and feigned disappointment at the lack of dead wolves. Only one other team had spotted even one of the animals during the hunt, and we bragged that we’d seen two of them. Our fellow hunters looked dubious when I lied about missing the shot at 400 yards. “Say 500 yards, goddamn it!” Walker hissed in my ear. “This is embarrassing.”
As for the coyotes, only 21 dead had been brought in, according to Idaho for Wildlife. Martyn Stewart was perched up on the loading dock, filming the proceedings. Rigor mortis had set in for most of the animals, and the judges had a hard time pulling the dead coyotes’ legs apart to check their sex. It had been announced that there would now be a lesser prize of several hundred dollars awarded to the hunter who had bagged the most female coyotes.
Martyn didn’t know I was a journalist until a few days after the derby, when I spoke with him on the phone. He told me that when he left town at 6 AM the next morning, the lights of a pickup truck flared in the winter dark as it pulled out after him. As soon as the speed limit hit 55, the truck raced up behind his bumper, the floodlights on high, the horn blasting.
“They were blinding me,” Martyn said, “and I gotta admit, my heart was in my mouth. They were literally driving me out of town.” About 15 miles north of Salmon, the truck emitted one final blast, flashed its lights, and gave up its hellish pursuit.
We avoided a similar fate, managing to hoodwink even the local sheriff, who told us he was on hand to make sure there was no trouble from pro-wolf protesters. “They said there was some kind of a threat,” he said. “But nobody showed. Guess they didn’t have the stomach for it.”
“Is that right?” Natalie said. I could see a smile playing on her lips.