A Missoula man is living my worst nightmare. My heart goes out to him.
On Sunday, November 17th, Layne Spence took his three family members – Malamutes Rex, Frank and Little Dave – out into the forest near Lolo Pass in Missoula County for some recreation. They drove to a campground that is closed for the winter. Spence was x/c skiing while his dogs did what Malamutes love to do – trot up the road just ahead of him, enjoying the snow. Because it’s hunting season, Spence’s dogs each wore a special collar with lights.
Suddenly, without warning, their peaceful winter outing was destroyed by the sound of gunfire—as reported in the local paper—two quick, muffled shots. Horrified, Spence watched Little Dave’s rear leg explode just yards ahead of him on the road. Yelling “Stop! Stop!” to alert the shooter, Spence stood helplessly on his skis as the camo-wearing hunter quickly fired four more times at Little Dave, with at least one bullet piercing the dog’s neck, killing him. The hunter then came down out of the trees, saying he thought Little Dave was a wolf and asked if he could do anything. Spence did exactly what I would have done—screamed at the guy to leave.
In 2005, my Malamutes Maia and Meadow and I moved to the West Central Mountains of Idaho, a rural ranching and logging area adjacent to the Payette National Forest, just outside the tourist town of McCall. Wild wolves had recently been reintroduced and were gaining a toe hold in the State, over the vocal objections of many Idahoans, including most hunters and ranchers. I had been living in the Seattle area, where strangers were always interested in meeting my girls, rarely showed fear and never thought they were wolves. In Idaho, I discovered the opposite was true: most locals assumed they were wolves, were immediately afraid of them, and only with reassurance from me that they were dogs— very friendly dogs—would they come closer to meet them. One of my new neighbor, a rancher who—like so many there—bought grazing allotments from the forest service and grazed his cattle in the Payette every summer, letting them roam freely, making them possible targets for wolves—assured me that no one would mistake my girls for a wolf, that wolves have longer legs, don’t hold their tails curled up on their backs, etc. I wanted to believe him, but…I couldn’t, based on the fearful reactions the girls kept eliciting. A couple years later, as I was walking my girls on leash up a country lane, this same neighbor stopped his truck beside us. Without preamble, he pointed at Maia, the one who looked most wolf-like, and said, “I shot a wolf that got into my cattle yesterday. It looked just like that one.” He then drove away. I felt threatened and didn’t sleep easy for weeks.
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During my time in Idaho—2005 through 2008—wolves were still protected as an endangered species and it was illegal to hunt them, although they could legally be shot if they “worried” livestock or threatened a pet. Despite those protections, I quickly learned that most locals would shoot any wolf they happened to see in the forest, any time of year, the Feds be damned. They bragged about it, or wanting to do it. So I made sure, any time I took my girls hiking or trail running in the forest, they stayed very close to me. During hunting season, I covered them in orange and even then—because I feared they would still be mistaken for wolves—I took them trail running in the only two nearby places where hunting was always illegal, a State park and a ski resort. I referred to their orange vests as “Do Not Hunt Me” vests. In fact, my fear was so great, I embellished the first vests I found (ironically sold by gun manufacturer Winchester to be worn by bird hunting dogs) by adding several lengths of orange flagging tape to their collars. The vests had nothing covering their chests so that head on, my girls could still be mistaken for wolves. Eventually I found bright orange vests made by VizVest that covered virtually their entire chest, backs and sides. I relaxed only slightly.
By 2008, it became clear wolves would lose federal protection and hunting them would be legalized in Idaho. Despite my love of the breed and having at least one Malamute in my life since 1985, I vowed that if I continued to live in Idaho I would not get another because the stress of worrying they’d be shot was too great. When I did add another dog to my family in 2008, I got an Aussie—a ranch breed no hunter would mistake for a wolf.
Trying to understand everyone’s perspective, I asked lots of questions—of locals, hunters, fish and game experts. Here’s my opinion, based on those conversations and living with the issue in a far-too-intimate way: Hunters out to kill wolves do so based on myth and fear. Their motivation is far different than the typical game hunter. Wolf hunters aren’t hunting for food, or even a trophy (although there are some really sad people out there who consider wolves a trophy animal and pose proudly next to one they’ve killed). An ethical elk or deer hunter will aim carefully to take the game with one shot; they don’t want the animal to suffer, nor do they want to follow a wounded animal over rough terrain to finally kill it. Many give thanks to the animal for the food it will provide. But a wolf hunter? They want wolves to suffer, they want to exterminate the species all over again. Wolf hunters seem motivated by an intense, almost irrational hatred borne of fear, believing wolf actively seek to kill humans. When I was building my house in Idaho, a concrete contractor told me with a straight face that the wolves the Feds were forcing on Idaho would come down onto school playgrounds and snatch children. (When I asked my 80-something father, who as a Kansas farm boy grew up hunting, why people were so afraid of wolves, he replied with his usual insight, “I guess they still believe in fairy tales.”) Add to that fear a strong anger based on the misguided belief that wolves are decimating elk populations, making it harder for hunters to find them. (This hunter complaint is common, despite research in Yellowstone showing that reintroducing wolves improves overall herd health, and reduced elk populations allow aspen trees decimated by the elk to thrive once again, returning the entire ecosystem to balance.)
Mix misinformation (myth), fear and anger and you have a combustible combination leading to rash, irresponsible shootings like the one that killed Little Dave.
I moved back to western Washington in early 2009. By then, wolves were delisted and states like Idaho, Montana and Wyoming were eagerly issuing hunting tags for them or planning to do so. Idaho’s governor boasted he wanted the first tag. The blood lust for wolves was palpable, and for me, sickening. Locals complained how the wolves didn’t belong in Idaho, saying they weren’t even “native” which totally ignored their extermination decades earlier. Rumors spreading around town of the evils perpetrated by wolves grew to fantastic proportions. As one sympathetic dog-loving friend said to me, “It’s like religion. They believe what they want to believe and can’t be persuaded they might be wrong.” It was clear to me that tragedies like that suffered by Little Dave and Layne Spence were waiting to happen in any state allowing wolf hunting.
Even more tragic for Mr. Spence? There’s nothing the State of Montana—the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department nor local Missoula County law enforcement—can or will do. Apparently the shooter had a tag for wolf hunting, the season in Montana for wolves in all winter long (September 15 – March 15), and the killing occurred in an area where hunting was legal. (If Montana is like Idaho, legal hunting territory is pretty much everywhere outside city limits.)
However, Mr. Spence may have a civil cause of action against the hunter for intentional or negligent infliction of emotional trauma—seeing his beloved pet shot and killed on a public road—depending on Montana’s statutory and common law. I hope he finds an animal law attorney and pursues it, because these sorts of cases, whether won or lost in the early rounds, can slowly change laws and people’s perceptions of what’s okay and what isn’t. When the pets we take onto public lands with us are afforded the same protections from harm that we are, others will be more careful. There are better, safer ways to “manage” wolf populations than issuing cheap hunting tags to people whose hatred and fear turns them into vigilante exterminators, overcoming their ability to hunt safely.
Read the original article in The Missoulian on November 19th, which has since posted several follow-up articles.