Even with more than 560 wolves in Montana and more than 1,600 in the northern Rocky Mountain States of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, many Montanans have yet to see a wolf.
For some that will change this fall.
"Hunters, hikers, anglers, and others are outdoors in force, increasing the odds of a chance encounter this time of year," said Ken McDonald, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks wildlife bureau chief. Wolf packs occur primarily in western Montana, but wolves could be found anywhere in the state.
So what should a person expect if they see a wolf? FWP's regional wolf biologists say the most common experience is to catch sight of a wolf or wolves loping away, maybe with a backward glance, or they may run off a ways and stand and stare.
Startled wolves may make a deep, "chesty" bark. A wolf's howl is also commanding, especially if the wolf is nearby and the acoustics of the mountains carry the sound.
But even coming upon wolves at close range is seldom a reason for alarm, McDonald said.
"FWP wolf biologists routinely come upon pup rearing areas or other loafing areas where a pack is spread out and bedded down," he said. "Anyone out enjoying the outdoors could similarly surprise multiple wolves by coming upon them at rest."
"If you surprise resting wolves at close range they might quickly rise to their feet around you," McDonald said. "It can be unnerving, it might heighten your heart rate."
Hunters are most likely to have this experience as they advance stealthily during a hunt.
Some of the wolves scattered across the landscape may see the intruder, while others will not. A few might lope off quietly, others may bark at the intruder, howl to locate the other wolves, or cautiously approach to get a better look at the intruder.
McDonald said once wolves have identified what the disturbance is, they generally leave the area. Or, the vocalizing and movements could go on for awhile as wolves regroup out of sight and pull back from the situation.
"It is easy to read aggression into this, but that is rarely the case," McDonald said. "The few unfortunate incidents between wolves and humans have occurred where wolves were habituated to humans, were fed human foods, provoked or otherwise engaged in ways that caused them to lose their fear of humans.
FWP wolf biologists urge dog owners to control of their dogs and keep them at close range in areas with wolf activity and to leave an area if they see wolf sign or hear wolves. Most wolves would not approach a dog that is close to a human, but some might, depending on the situation. Mountain lion hunters for example, have lost hunting dogs to wolves during a hunt.
In short, though wolves can be caught off guard, they may not bolt away instantly. While that could be encouraging to hunters, it means most Montanans will want to learn more about wolves and spend some time preparing for their first wolf sighting.
To learn more about wolves or report a sighting, go to fwp.mt.gov and click For Fish and Wildlife Information . McDonald noted that the state's general rifle season for wolves opens Oct. 22. The general archery season for wolves was Sept. 3-Oct. 16.
WHAT SHOULD I DO IF I ENCOUNTER A WOLF?
• Do not allow wolves to become comfortable around human dwellings or inhabited areas.
• Report a wolf sighting to FWP online to assist in the tracking and management of wolves in Montana.
• Keep dogs under voice command or on a leash. Wolves can be aggressive toward domestic dogs.
• If you encounter a wolf and your dog is present, bring your dog to heel at your side as soon as possible. Standing between your dog and the wolf usually ends an encounter.
• Do not try to break up a physical fight between the wolf and your dog, to avoid any risk of injury to yourself.