Newspaper Reports On Unnerving Wolf Encounter In Lake Chelan NRA; Expert Weighs In

A couple years ago, a blurb about a standoff between a hunter and a pack of wolves appeared in the quarterly newsletter of the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife’s Enforcement Division.

The man, reportedly an Idaho guide, told a game warden that he was surrounded by five wolves in Pend Oreille County during an early fall 2009 blackpowder elk hunt.

According to WDFW’s write-up:

“The wolves were reportedly growling at him and the incident continued for approximately a half hour. The gentleman fired a shot into the ground and the wolves would not disperse. According to the man, he believed the wolves were confused whether he was predator or prey. The party indicated he was an Idaho guide and was well-versed in wolf identification from seeing many wolves on his backcountry hunting trips.

For what that account lacks in detail, another wolf encounter just published in the Methow Valley News raises the neck hairs.

Previously Kari Hirschberger talked about and posted pictures of some of her experience in a thread on Hunting-Washington, but she opens up with reporter Ann McCreary in this week’s paper.

The 24-year-old hunter was scouting for deer by herself at the edge of the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area three days prior to the opening of this past September’s High Buck Hunt.

A forester by training, Hirschberger expected to see muleys in the areas she was watching as other spots “with similar aspect and elevation and vegetation (were) crawling with deer,” but she couldn’t find any in this particular area.

Spotting a deer carcass through her optics, she went down to investigate and eventually stumbled across a shallow hole with bits of hair scattered around which to her suggested a den.

Realizing she “should not be there,” she began to move away and that’s when a pair of wolves appeared.

McCreary reports:

“At 45 to 50 yards away from me were two adult gray wolves … approaching me at a rapid pace,” Hirschberger said. “I was trying to back up, but when I saw them I recognized that I shouldn’t try to retreat but should try to appear big and scare them. I put my hands in the air and started screaming and shouting.”

“They stopped (and) allowed me to get back up the ridgeline where the spotting scope was. I thought, no one’s going to believe me if I don’t take pictures,” Hirschberger said. So she put the lens of her point-and-shoot camera to the spotting scope and snapped photos of the wolves below her.

“I knew I’m not safe to stay there that evening, and was figuring out what’s next,” she said. “I was watching the wolves. They answered my question when they started trotting up through the trees” toward Hirschberger. She hurried over to her camp and began packing. As she was kneeling down, the wolves appeared on the ridge about 60-70 yards away.

Again, she threw her hands in the air and started yelling and took a couple steps toward the wolves.

“We had a standoff there for a while. I realized that this could go on all night, and I can’t do this in the dark,” Hirschberger said. “I started shoving everything into my backpack with one hand with my rifle in the other.”

The wolves made a series of false charges, according to her account, making it unnerving for her to pack up.

She also was able to advance upon the pair and move them off by yelling and throwing rocks as she retrieved her boyfriend’s spotting scope from where she’d left it.

As she hiked what she estimates as a mile and a quarter to a trail that led down to the Twisp River, she was followed by the wolves.

What they were up to, Hirschberger’s not sure, but offered McCreary some thoughts:

“At the time I felt like they were chasing me out of the area,” she said. “But if they were defending their kill I would expect their hackles to be raised … and would not expect them to follow me a mile and a quarter.”

She has since wondered if they might have been viewing her as potential prey. “I’m size 6, around 125 pounds. It’s a possibility that I was seen as a curious prey item … that they were testing me to see if I was an easy prey,” Hirschberger said. She said her instinct to fight back and act aggressively probably helped her in the situation.

Hirschberger said she has seen wolves before, near Carlton. “I’ve taken photos of them. They were very elusive,” she said.

She speculated that because of the remoteness of the area she had chosen to hunt in, “I’m not sure if those wolves have had much interaction with humans.”

WDFW’s Okanogan County district wildlife biologist Scott Fitkin agrees with Hirschberger that the area is so lightly traveled that its possible “those animals rarely, if ever, encounter people. They were probably as surprised as she was to see her there,” he told McCreary.

After a biologist and the USFS visited the site and placed trail cameras there, Fitkin reported in an internal-WDFW email:

What was reported as a den site turned out to be most likely a marmot hole, definitely too small for wolves and in an extremely unlikely spot (in alpine habitat at about 7,000 feet) for denning. Evidence at the site suggests animals were at the site for a few days with a deer kill, but were not there for an extended time as would be expected at a rendezvous site.  The site is within the known territory of the Lookout Pack.  There was no mention of pups in the observer’s report, nor was there any evidence of pups of the year on site.  The observer most likely ran into the 2-3 adult members believed to be left in the Lookout Pack that were with the remains of a recent kill and were probably somewhat defensive of the carcass, hence the bold behavior described by the reporting party.  One scat sample was obtained to collect DNA and hopefully answer the question about whether these are indeed the Lookout animals.

About the animals’ behavior, he told McCreary, “While the prey testing idea is possible, it would be very unusual with respect to humans.”

Fitkin said that during more than three years of studying and monitoring the Lookout Pack closer to the valley floor, the wolves have periodically come into contact with humans. One of the wolf team members inadvertently came upon a rendezvous site, where adult wolves watch over pups while the other pack members are hunting. Even then, the wolves didn’t show any aggressive behavior, Fitkin said.

“They’ve had the opportunity to be aggressive, and never were to those of us monitoring them,” he said.

I asked Carter Niemeyer, the retired U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Idaho wolf recovery coordinator, USDA Wildlife Services wolf specialist for the Northern Rockies, author of the excellent book Wolfer, and trapper who captured both of the Lookout Pack’s alphas back in 2008, his thoughts on the encounter and he offered a comment that surprised me but makes sense.

Hirschberger should have fired a shot.

“The only decision I wish she would have made would be to discharge her rifle in their direction,” Niemeyer said via email. “I predict the wolves would have fled and the woman could have relaxed. No harm in teaching wolves to be wild and preventing any possible habituation behavior from developing.”

A wolf that reportedly came much closer — as little as 10 feet — to an elk bowhunter near Headquarters, Idaho, earlier this fall was permanently prevented from doing something similarly brazen again.

Niemeyer agrees with Fitkin that the wolves were probably curious because they may never have run into people in that rough country.

“The woman observed that the wolves showed no aggression which makes me think they were curious and it sounds like her behavior may have perked their curiosity even more,” he says.

Their age might also have “a huge bearing on the situation — old wolves vs younger wolves,” says Niemeyer, guessing the latter.

The Lookout Pack’s alpha female’s last known successful litter was in spring 2009, which, if one or the pair of wolves that paced Hirschberger are related, would make them at least 2 years old.

Niemeyer points out that over the last 100 years, only two people in North America have been killed by wolves, and during a presentation at an Olympia, Wash., bookstore last winter, he told a small audience that he has crawled into occupied wolf dens without a problem and without carrying a firearm.

He termed Hirschberger’s story “part of the history of people in the U.S. living with wolves again.”

Sometimes that will mean scaring the bejeezus out of the too-brave ones as well as removing problem animals.

“If individual wolves or packs become a serious threat to people (documented and proven), I have no problem with self-defense or agency removal. The (National Park Service) recently removed an habituated wolf in (Yellowstone National Park) — a good decision before the wolf nipped somebody and set wolf recovery back 30 years,” he says.

As it stands, the encounter occurred in tense times in the West’s so-called Wolf War.

The Washington Fish & Wildlife Commission is expected to approve a final wolf management plan next month.

The RMEF was allowed to present material in an Oregon appeals court where ODFW is arguing that astay of execution for two members of the livestock-killing Imnaha Pack should be lifted.

Judges of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals are mulling whether Congress acted outside the constitution when it legislatively delisted Canis lupus last spring.

Idaho is set to begin wolf trapping next Tuesday.

And at least 174 wolves have been taken there and in Montana’s second ever hunting seasons.

Hirschberger’s experience is sure to be much talked about amongst sportsmen and wolf advocates, and McCreary quotes her thoughts on that:

“I’ve been fairly private about this. I don’t want to be used as propaganda for either side,” she said. “This interesting behavior will be read in two very different ways, depending on what you think about wolf management in the state.”

“I’m a graduate of the University of Washington forestry school,” she added. “I understand a healthy ecosystem doesn’t have missing parts. You can’t manage for one thing, you have to manage for all. I am a hunter, and I strongly believe we should have a wolf management plan in place … but I don’t believe ‘no wolves’ is a management plan.”

Hirschberger said she didn’t have time to feel frightened during the encounter with the wolves, but when she reached her car at the trailhead after hiking out of the mountains, she got inside “and had a nice little cry before I headed down the road.”

McCreary reports that she also headed back into the mountains for the High Hunt — with her boyfriend — and ended up killing her buck in a wilderness area well to the north.

Editor’s note: Dave Workman, senior editor of Gun Week and a longtime Washington hunting writer, interviewed Hirschberger for a piece in his upcoming Dec. 1 issue.

 

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