LIBBY — A thrilling hunt ended in the worst way for several local cat hunters, as a harrowing night led to an unexpected and sad end.
Three hounds set loose in wild country by their owners to tree a mountain lion were never again seen alive by their owners.
The dogs’ owners, Phil Soucy, Clyde Carpenter and Todd Hittle, were chasing the cat between Flower and Parmenter creeks, just two miles from the edge of Woodway Park on Feb. 2.
The hunters circled the area to look for fresh wolf tracks heading in the direction they wanted to free the hounds and finding none, deemed it safe for the dogs.
They were wrong.
“Initially, this has been one of my greatest fears,” Soucy said. “When you turn your dogs loose, it takes the fun right out of it. It turns my stomach in knots.”
The three dogs, Sadie, Dan and Roy, were killed by wolves shortly after they were set loose, Soucy estimates. The bodies of the dogs were recovered the next day.
Roy, Soucy’s 10-year-old beagle, and the “best male dog he ever had,” was the last dog killed and was actually fed upon by the wolves.
“I couldn’t take the collar off Roy,” he said. “I just couldn’t do it. It was too hard for me.”
Incidents like this occur once or twice a year, said Jerry Mercer, a taxidermist and hunter.
“Trapping isn’t going to be enough,” Mercer said about the wolf population. “Increasing the number of tags is milquetoast. We can’t use snares. Talk to any wolf hunter in Alaska or Canada and they’ll tell you snares are how they catch wolves.”
According to the 2011 wolf population and distribution map detailed by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the pack likely responsible for the hounds’ demise was either the Cabinet or Satire pack, two packs south of Libby.
The 2012 report is expected to add five to seven packs to that map in Northwest Montana, said Kent Laudon, a state wolf biologist, bringing the number of packs in the area to near 60. With an average number of seven wolves per pack, the estimated number of wolves in Northwest Montana hovers near 420. Statewide that number is near 650.
Soucy, an experienced cat hunter who had been in every drainage in Lincoln County, said the state’s counts are, at best, a low estimate.
“Within a 25-mile radius of Libby, there are at least 75 wolves,” Soucy said. “There is a sleeper cell in every one of these drainages. Cat hunters have a far better grasp of what is out there than FWP.”
Jason Fosgate, firearms department manager at Mac’s Market, said reported interaction with wolves is actually down.
“I think the wolves are learning,” he said. “Those are smart animals. Hunting success is way down. They are staying away from people.”
Laudon, the area wolf expert, said a wolf pack typically has a territory of 200 square miles and is capable not only of splitting up into separate hunting parties, but also of traveling seven miles or more every day.
For Soucy, who understands the risks inherent in mountain lion hunting, the wolves have become more trouble than they are worth.
“Only one person I know has caught more than one wolf this season,” he said.
In Wolf Management Unit 100, which comprises Libby, Troy and the Yaak, the total harvest of wolves has been just 14.
The state has knowledge of trends and patterns, but hunters feel the actual information on packs is lacking.
“They do not recognize a wolf pack unless they have one collared,” Soucy said. “They only just now recognized the Bearfite pack up in Pipe Creek.”
For the hunters who lost their hounds, something needs to be done.
“I think we’ve got way too many wolves,” said Carpenter, owner of 6-year-old Dan, a Redbone Coonhound named after Old Dan from “Where the Red Fern Grows.” “Traps and bullets I don’t believe are going to do much.”
The third dog, Sadie, a gorgeous Bluetick Coonhound, belonged to Hittle’s 14-year-old son Ryker.
“I think the only solution is to give them predator status,” Soucy said. “Lift all restrictions. There is tremendously high pup survival. Territories are getting smaller and smaller. Gone are the days of leaving your dogs out overnight.”