Thursday, May 11, 2006

State biologist keeps eyes on wolves through tracking

By MIKE STARK Of The Gazette Staff

ROSCOE -- Even from atop a rumbling ATV, the two sets of tracks are obvious in the muddy flat, fat and deep dimples running straight down the road.

Jon Trapp, who's been after these wolves for days, pulls up beside the tracks and leans in for a closer look. The tracks are fresh, maybe a day or two old, but the wolves are long gone. Trapp takes a long look over the foothills of the Beartooth plateau, a sweep of grassy slopes and dense clusters of trees. The two members of the Rosebud pack, one of Montana's newest, could be anywhere out there. Today the job for Trapp, a biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, is to find one and put a radio collar on it.

Nearly a year ago, Montana took the lead role in managing the 250 or so wolves in the state, picking up a job that for years had been in the hands of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The move is an important shift toward eventually taking wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains off the endangered species list. But the change is more than just a bureaucratic handoff.

The state, using federal funding, is now responsible for dozens of wolf packs scattered from Kalispell to Dillon to Red Lodge. That means managing existing packs, keeping track of new ones, dealing with those that get into trouble and, sometimes most time-consuming, finding ways for people and wolves to co-exist.

Trapp, who grew up in Prescott, Ariz., spent seven years in the Air Force, including time as an intelligence analyst and a combat survival instructor teaching pilots how to survive if their plane went down. Dealing with wolves is something different altogether.

He spends much of his time talking with ranchers, civic groups, schools and anyone else interested in wolves. That part of the job -- more ambassador and diplomat than biologist -- can be rewarding, he says, but some days he prefers the company of the wild and the challenge of finding rangy wolves. "A lot of it is learning wolf behavior and where they travel," Trapp says after checking out the tracks in the mud. "But it's also a lot of luck."

Once, packs of wolves roamed across Montana. Canis lupus, as as the wolf is formally known, found plentiful food supplies in elk, deer, bison and other animals in the plains and the mountains. But as settlers and livestock moved in, the wolves were squeezed out. In 1884, the first year of a Montana bounty law, 5,450 wolf hides were sent in for payment, according to state officials. By 1931, all but three counties reported bounty payments, with the heaviest activity in Eastern Montana.

Historians figure that sometime in the 1930s, Montana's self-sustaining wolf populations were wiped out. Reports of wolves, tracks or scat trickled in for decades, most attributed to animals that wandered down from Canada and had little chance of finding mates and setting up shop.

In 1986, wildlife officials confirmed that a wolf pack was denning in the western United States for the first time in 50 years inside Glacier National Park. Another was discovered on the Blackfeet reservation the next year and by 1993, 45 wolves in five packs occupied portions of northwest Montana.

Wolves began to truly re-establish their footing in Montana in 1995 and 1996 when, after years of impassioned and sometimes bitter debate, 66 were reintroduced from Canada into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. It didn't take long for some of them to wander out of Yellowstone and into the rugged country outside Red Lodge. That's the country that Trapp works today.

The sun is still behind a thin gauze of morning clouds as Trapp guides his pickup truck onto the Lazy EL Ranch at the foot of the Beartooth Mountains between the drainages of the East and West Rosebud creeks. Signs of the Rosebud pack, which formed late last year, have been seen on the 12,000-acre ranch in recent weeks and the ranch operators have agreed to allow Trapp to try to capture and collar the wolves on their land. A day before, wolves stepped within a few feet of a trap he'd set earlier. He's hoping for better luck today.

One of the best places to start looking for signs of wolves, typically tracks or scat, is along roads, where wolves can move quickly without interference from trees, boulders and other obstacles. "When you cover 20 miles in a night, it's easier to travel 20 miles on a road," Trapp says.

Wolves can be tireless wanderers intent on finding food and marking and defending their territory. Trapp figures the Rosebud pack, like others in the state, could cover several hundred square miles. There's plenty of elk, whitetail deer and mule deer to eat in the area, he says, but wolves can also be tempted by nearby cattle. "We hope they focus on natural prey but when there's high densities of livestock, the probability of them eventually killing livestock is higher," Trapp says. "We'd like to minimize that."

Collaring wolves helps wildlife officials keep track of the pack and, if they move toward livestock, work with landowners to prevent problems before they start. So far, the Rosebud pack hasn't attacked any livestock as far as Trapp knows and he wants to keep it that way. "If these wolves here get in trouble and we just kill them, in about a year there will be more wolves in here and we'll have to start (over) with them," he says.

He stops his pickup at the top of a hill and gets out with T-shaped antennae in his hand. The device picks up radio signals from the eight traps in the area. Once he's holding it above his head, it comes alive with a steady rhythm of bleeps.

"Do you hear that?" he says. A trap has been triggered.

In the first few years after wolves were reintroduced, most stayed within Yellowstone National Park. The population grew quickly -- by more than 50 percent some years -- and soon met recovery goals set out by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. So while the reintroduction is considered a biological success, having established self-sustaining wolf populations in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, the experiment with people continues.

Like any large and roaming meat-eater, wolves stir deep and often mixed emotions for those who live around them. They are, by some, revered for embodying the essence of wildness and restoring the ecological trickle-down effects that happen when a large predator is part of things. Others, though, would rather that wolves stayed away, saying that the settlers protecting their land and livestock were right to rid the landscape of them. The last decade has tempered that sharp divide, but not eliminated it.

Of the 46 packs in Montana, just two spend most of their time in wilderness areas. Most crisscross mountains and valleys and move easily between public and private lands. It is those treks onto private land that cause the most contention.

Last year, wolves in Montana killed at least 23 cows, 33 sheep, a dog and two horses. The numbers are certainly higher, because it can be difficult to tie suspect killings back to wolves. Even though coyotes, dogs and even foxes are likely responsible for more livestock killings, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wolves seem to generate the most heat, especially when they wander into new areas. A series of sheep attacks in McCone and Garfield counties earlier this year, either by a wolf or a wolf-hybrid, prompted community meetings, aerial searches, letters from politicians and a flurry of rumors and worry. Recent changes in rules allow landowners in Montana and Idaho to kill wolves that are attacking livestock. But you have to catch them first.

Not far from where Trapp picked up the signal from the activated trap (Trapp is a trapper on this day), he finds a problem -- a rock has been wedged into the trap. It may have been kicked there or put there. The point is, there's no wolf. Trapp's disappointed but decides to reset it anyway, hoping to do a better job luring a wolf to the spot.

The trap isn't what you'd think. It has a jaw that snaps shut when it's triggered but it doesn't have teeth that bite into the animal's leg. The traps, either steel or rubber, are meant to keep the wolf in place without causing injury. The traps, once set, are checked daily and sometimes more often to minimize the time wolves spend in them. "Years and years of trapping wolves have gone into the design of these traps, because we want to make sure we don't hurt them," Trapp says.

He pulls a bucket full of brushes, screens and other tools from the pickup truck. All of them have been boiled to reduce any human scent, and Trapp uses a dropcloth when he's at the trap for the same reason. "If they've been caught before and there was a (human) scent there ... they may be a little more spooky about the whole thing," Trapp says.

He's reluctant to discuss certain details about trapping, like which lures work best and methods he uses to draw wolves closer. Suffice it to say, he has a boxful of containers brimming with foul-smelling mixtures -- and he's an avid scat collector. "I usually pick up every one I find," Trapp says.

The droppings are bagged and put in his freezer at home, with the indulgence of his wife. He can tell you about which ones freeze best and which ones don't, and why. "I'm still learning new ways," he says with a smile.

When a wolf is trapped, it's drugged with a syringe on a pole. Once the animal is asleep, the trap is removed from its foot, measurements are taken, blood is drawn for DNA analysis and a radio collar is strapped around its neck. "We wait for them to wake up and usually they get up and rejoin the rest of their pack," Trapp says. A good radio collar can last three to five years and gives wildlife officials on the ground and in the air a way to map out the pack's home range, find den sites and monitor their health. It also gives them a chance to warn landowners when wolves are headed their direction so they might take precautionary measures, like putting up temporary fencing.

With the rock removed and the trap reset, Trapp fires up his four-wheeler and points it up a gravel road. While Trapp and his counterparts around Montana are keeping track of wolves in the state, the political controversy over wolves grinds on. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has said for years that the Northern Rockies wolf population has been recovered. But in order for it to be removed from the endangered species list, the federal government has to approve plans from Montana, Idaho and Wyoming for managing wolves in the future.

Wyoming and the Department of Interior have been fighting over that state's plan for years, primarily over whether some wolves there could be classified as predators and be killed without regulation. With the Wyoming dispute continuing in courts and meeting rooms, delisting is being held up in Montana and Idaho, though both states now run most day-to-day wolf management. Montana's approach has been to spread agents such as Trapp around the state for on-the-ground management, monitoring and education. State officials are also trying to put together a reimbursement program for owners of livestock killed by wolves.

All those contentious politics feel a world away as Trapp steers his ATV across the rolling landscape on the Lazy EL. He spends the next several hours checking his traps and making adjustments. Despite plenty of tracks and scattered piles of scat, there are no wolves to be seen today. The sterilized tools and the ATV eventually loaded back into the truck, Trapp is philosophical about coming up empty.

Wolves aren't tamed and obedient animals that neatly fall into human expectations, desires and political objectives. They operate solely in their own interest guided by a biological imperative to eat, survive and produce offspring. So none show up in the trap today. Montana is into wolf management for the long haul. The meeting with the Rosebud pack will wait.

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