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Investigating 692F

Anatomy of a Tragedy

by Dr. Jim Halfpenny
Dec. 26, 2011

Rumor was that 692F was roaming north of Gardiner, Montana, near the historic mining burg of Jardine, but wolf watchers weren’t worried. The wolf hunting season for area 313/316 had closed on October 6. Then on November 5, Branson Mace arrived, out of breath, at the local bar in Gardiner bragging that he shot a wolf. Curious on-lookers followed Mace outside to his pickup where 692F lay dead in the back.

Mace’s glory was short-lived as a local citizen reported him to Montana, Fish, Wildlife, and Parks for killing a wolf out-of-season. Pleading guilty in court, he was fined $135. So ended the life of 692F and apparently this misbegotten saga.

What follows goes with an apology because some of the story is distasteful, but should be told. It behooves the pro-wolf cadre to stick to documented and first-hand facts rather than the plethora of rumors and innuendos floating around.

The people, or majority thereof, wanted gray wolf restoration and when wolves made the pilgrimage to Yellowstone National Park, those people wanted to be part of it.  In 1996, Diann Thompson and I started making the score card for the wolves, the Wolf Chart, a visual record of the wolves and their packs. When visitors arrive, they buy their charts so they can be part of restoration by spotting and even recognizing individual wolves. Each year, we have sold thousands of charts. For each chart sold, $0.10 is donated to help the wolves.

In 2005, Bob Weselmann joined our effort. Using Bob’s photographs, we changed to a more pictorial format. Total donated proceeds since restoration total greater than $10,000.

In 2009, a radio collar was draped around the neck of black female from the Blacktail Pack marking her as 692F. For the last several years, Bob, Diann, and I had pooled the proceeds from the sale of Wolf Charts and added some of our own money to make a $5000 donation to buy the radio collar.

Sponsoring a radio collar induces a deep feeling of pride for that certain wolf. I watched her every known move. That wolf became part of my life, my family, and myself!

In September, 2011, friends and I had finished supper and walked outside a Gardiner restaurant. I heard the rising tone of angry words. Cody Daniels, a local business manager, had just answered a tourist couple’s question when an avid wolf watcher interrupted.  What followed was a heated altercation.

Biologically the wolves has been successful with their population increasing beyond some of our greatest expectations.  Politically though, the battle still rages. For those of us who live in gateway communities it is a constant battle of public relations and corrections. Our battle to save wolves was damaged here in Gardiner with this altercation. The relationships we have worked years to establish suffered a set back.  This sort of action, even if we are correct, kills wolves by creating ill will. The next time people have a chance they may just shoot, shovel, and shut-up, or worse yet, it causes locals to vote against critical actions and legislation. I have personally worked with Daniels for about 18 months on wildlife issues and attempted some fence mending after this incident.

Calls to the Livingston Enterprise prompted further inquiry into the matter.  Another possible shooter, Daniels, has now pleaded not guilty (as of Dec. 21) and the issue will go to trial. If found guilty the fine specified at the hearing was $250. For most of the pro-wolf cadre, the fines are too small, creating deep feelings ofinjustice. These amounts are nothing more than an entrance fee to notoriety and are not even as expensive as some hunting permits. 

Reactions to the fine quickly reached the Director of FWP. There is little the director or his game wardens can do because fine amounts are set by the Montana Legislature. The legislature has decided that the illegally killing of an elk is, at the maximum, worth $7000 but the illegal killing of a wolf is worth, at the maximum, only $1000. Without extenuating circumstances fines seldom reach the maximum. For the wolf cadre, their actions need to target, not only the Director of FWP, but the Montana legislature inducing them to put greater value on wolves.

Wolf 692F was beloved by many watchers who had observed her lone journeys across the Northern Range. Laurie Lyman told 692F’s story in the following eulogy blog. “Far too many times recently I have had to report wolf deaths to all of you. It is with great sadness that I write to all of you today about a wolf that was so dear to my heart.”

Eventually the collar should come back to Diann, Bob, and me and will be displayed with a suiting memorial by A Naturalist’s World in Gardiner. Perhaps the killing of 692F goes deeper than the poor sportsmanship of an irresponsible hunter. Angry words and the actions of members of the pro-wolf community affect how others react to wolves. Extreme actions or extreme philosophical views seldom win many friends and wolves need friends. The cadre of wolf watchers must strive to positively influence those who vote on wolf issues, whether that vote be by ballot or by bullet. Watchers must avoid alienation because the battle to win hearts and minds of the voting public will span the next several generations of youth. Let your actions speak for the wolves!


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