Wolves in Montana
Public plays part in improved monitoring
One was found by a bear hunter near Troy, another by herbology researchers working near the Pinkham Creek drainage south of Eureka, and yet another by average folks who live in the Marias Pass area. In just a matter of months, three wolf packs have been discovered and included in the Northwest Montana wolf population. There's likely more to be found, too, according to officials with the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which has assumed management and monitoring responsibilities for the Northwest Montana wolf population from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Do the latest wolf counts represent a population growth trend or do they merely reflect better monitoring? The answer is a mix of both, according to Kent Laudon, the state wolf management specialist for Northwest Montana.
This last year, there appears to be a big population jump from previous years, he said. Some of it is real population increases and some of it is increased vigilance in monitoring. The 10-year average shows the Northwest Montana population is slowly growing. More specifically, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has a stronger network of biologists and game wardens who regularly work in the field with the public and other agencies, compared to the resources that were at play when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was monitoring wolves in Northwest Montana.
And the department has beefed up efforts to encourage public wolf sightings, most recently with the addition of an online report form for wolf sightings. Our report frequency has gone up since we started it, Laudon said, adding that public reports have been crucial to providing an improved accounting of the region's wolf population.
Ed Bangs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf recovery coordinator, has long stressed that the number of wolves and wolf packs appearing in annual reports only represents the known wolves on the landscape. And he repeatedly acknowledged that there are certainly wolves in the woods that can't be accounted for.
After a wolf was hit and killed by a car on U.S. 2 near Marias Pass in February, Laudon put out a press release in which he speculated that the wolf might be a lone disperser from a distant pack. Residents in the Marias Pass area promptly contacted him to correct that guess, reporting sightings of several wolves in the area. Laudon said Blackfeet tribal fish and game officials ultimately provided agency verification for a bona fide Marias Pack.
More recently, a bear hunter stumbled onto some wolf pups near Troy, reporting the sighting to a friend, who relayed the information to area wildlife biologist Jerry Brown. Brown interviewed the hunter to establish where the sighting occurred, then went to the location and photographed wolf pups in the area. Laudon later attempted to trap and fit an adult wolf with a radio collar in the same area, but instead ended up catching a black bear, a mountain lion and a bobcat. He believes a wolf was temporarily caught in the leg hold trap, which is modified with rubber to avoid serious harm to the animals. He intends to return to the area for another attempt at collaring a wolf.
This week, Laudon was working traps in the Pinkham Creek drainage, where a group of amphibian researchers recently photographed three pups and Laudon located tracks and scat to confirm the presence of a new pack.
Getting radio collars in a pack is essential for monitoring wolves, Laudon said, and even with collared wolves, following them is kind of like holding water in my hand. Collared wolves die, or sometimes older wolves leave their packs and wander far away, and batteries eventually wear down, too. Just last year, one collared wolf was hit by a train, one was found dead in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and one simply went missing. Batteries will soon expire in radio collars on wolves in the Kintla Pack, which ranges in the North Fork Flathead River drainage.
Being able to locate packs through regular radio telemetry flights isn't just important for keeping tabs on pack populations, it's also important for heading off conflicts with livestock. That's the case with the new pack in the Pinkham drainage. There are livestock concerns up there, Laudon said. There is a grazing allotment on federal lands there, so it would be good to get a collar in there to monitor that pack.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks also has an interest in monitoring wolves and their impacts on elk and deer populations. The state's wolf management plan includes provisions to curb wolf populations if those impacts are severe.
However, the state's ability to do that will depend on wolves in the Northern Rockies being removed from protection under the Endangered Species Act. Delisting has been held up because the state of Wyoming does not have a wolf management plan that’s approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Montana and Idaho have approved plans and populations that exceed recovery goals.
The 2005 annual wolf report had an official count of 19 packs with 126 wolves in Northwest Montana. That snapshot count has changed with new pups, mortality, immigration and dispersal of wolves. And it has changed with the discovery of the new packs. This year’s monitoring data will produce entirely different counts, particularly with the help of the public reporting wolf sightings.
Sightings can be reported by calling Laudon at 751-4586 or through the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Web site at: http://fwp.mt.gov/wildthings/wolf/default.html