Gray Wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains

From: Gray Wolf Recovery Coordinator, Helena, MT 3/30/01

Subject: Status of Gray Wolf Recovery, Week of 3/23-3/30, 2001

Monitoring

Former Rose Creek Wolf #115 and Sheep Mtn. Wolf #196 were together in Tom Miner Basin (Yellowstone area) this week. A rancher saw #155 sniffing a newborn calf. The cow also saw this and scared the wolf off with some help from the rancher. Wolf #196 was just up the hill from #155. Chief Joe was also hanging out in Tom Miner and Cinnabar Basin this week. We will try to harass the Chief Joe pack and disturb any potential dens/den sites. Hopefully that will cause them to den inside the Park as they have in the past, rather than in the Cinnabar Basin as they did last year.

There are consistent reports of wolf activity from 3 areas north of Yellowstone National Park. A set of three wolf tracks were confirmed just north of Mill Cr (north of Chico Hot Springs), there were sightings of one maybe 2 wolves in the Crazy Mtn’s north of Big Timber, MT and a report of multiple tracks maybe 3 wolves on private property about 7 miles west of Livingston, MT. There have also been reports of 3 wolves just southwest of Red Lodge, MT. Female wolf B-36, relocated from Idaho in spring 2000, was last located in Feb. back in the Big Hole, MT area. She had been near Bannack, MT but the last 2 flights failed to locate her.

At the request of the Service, the Nez Perce Tribe flew part of northeast Oregon searching for missing wolves early this week. All missing MT, ID, and WY wolf radio frequencies were scanned but no radioed wolves were found in OR.

Please report wolf sightings!! Thanks to those who have been forwarding us reports it has helped located several potential new packs. When we are this close to reaching the 30 breeding pair recovery goal, each wolf pack becomes very important.

Control

On Wednesday, March 28, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released five wolves in the Parsnip Creek area on the west side of Lake Koocanusa. The wolves had been taken from a large pack in the Deerlodge/Avon area earlier in the winter to decrease the likelihood of livestock depredations on a private ranch this summer. They were held in a pen at the Flying D ranch, near Bozeman, MT. Muddy conditions had prevented access to the pen earlier in the week, but a hard freeze early Wednesday morning allowed biologists to reach the pen and capture the wolves.

The five wolves, four 11-month-old pups and a two-year-old female, were removed from the Boulder Pack in January in order to reduce the size of the pack and the likelihood of the pack attacking cattle in their home range. The pack did kill 3 calves last summer. Six wolves, including the breeding pair, remain in the Boulder pack. The five wolves were too young to have been involved in cattle depredation, but their absence from the pack should decrease its food needs this summer and make further depredations less likely. This is the first time the Service has pro-actively moved wolves from an area to reduce the chances of livestock conflict. In the past, wolves were moved only after conflicts had occurred. Since 1989, nearly 80 wolves that were involved with livestock depredations have been relocated in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Relocation of wildlife to reduce conflicts with people or start new breeding populations is a commonly used wildlife management tool.

The facility where the wolves were held was the testing site for the use of dog training collars to try to train wolves to stay away from cattle. That testing was done with members of the Sheep Mountain Pack from north of Yellowstone Park in 2000, and those wolves have since been successfully released back into their home range. No conditioning was tried with the five Boulder Pack wolves, which were merely held until their release in northwest Montana could be arranged. However it appears that being held in the pen made members of the Sheep Mountain pack more wary of people and the Service suspects short term captivity will have the same effect on these 5 Boulder wolves. However, if these wolves depredate on livestock they will be euthanized.

The intention of relocating these wolves to extreme northwest Montana was to increase the chances that 2001 will be the first year of a three-year countdown to removing wolves from the endangered species list in the Rocky Mountains. Recovery goals call for 30 breeding pairs of wolves between Idaho, Montana and Wyoming over a three-year period. In 2000 there were 27 breeding pairs counted in the area. A breeding pair is defined as a pair of wolves that raise at least two pups to January 1. Northwest Montana (60 wolves/6 breeding pairs) has lagged behind the Central Idaho (190 wolves/9 breeding pairs) and Yellowstone (160 wolves/12 breeding pairs) recovery areas, where wolves are were reintroduced from Canada in 1995-1996. The Northwest Montana wolf population has depended on natural dispersal from Canada and reproduction in Montana. The Boulder Pack wolves were moved from one part of the Northwest Montana recovery area to another, in keeping with the policy of moving wolves to the area with the fewest number of breeding pairs so recovery and delisting can be achieved as soon as possible. Several areas of northwestern Montana appear to have excellent wolf habitat that is currently unoccupied by resident packs.

The 5 released wolves are not expected to stay where they were released, or to remain together. The release site was chosen because it was far from human settlement, there were little or no livestock in the area, deer were abundant, and while lone wolves have been reported there are no known resident packs. It is hoped that these wolves will join up with any lone wolves already in the area and start new packs that will contribute to delisting criteria. All five are radio-collared, and will be closely monitored in the coming weeks.

The 5 wolves were located on March 30 and all were within 5 miles of the release site. The 4 female wolves were together and the male was located by itself and had moved in the opposite direction.

Research

The Yellowstone late winter predation study ended on March 31. Overall kill rates were lower this winter than in the past, most likely because of the mild winter weather. More mature bulls were taken, possibly because of extreme drought conditions in summer 2000, resulting in poor forage quality and were unable to replenish their body reserves before winter. The mild winter also made adult cows less vulnerable to wolf predation.

The winter count of the northern Range Yellowstone elk herd was compiled by Montana Dept. of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Yellowstone National Park biologists. The 2000 Yellowstone elk harvest was slightly above average with 90 bulls, 915 cows and 216 calves (total 1221 elk) being harvested. The average since 1976 is 1094. Hunter success was 63% compared to the long term average of 65%. The total elk estimate was 13, 890, with the average being 13,440. There were over 30 calves per hundred cows with the long term average being 24 calves.

Basically the elk herd recovered from a recent low of just over 11,000 elk after the big winter die off and subsequent high hunter harvest in 1996, to about 14,000 elk today. Since last year when the research program placed radios on about 65 elk, 9 have died. One was killed by a lion soon after being collared in 2000 but was not counted as a study mortality because it could have been predisposed to predation from being captured. Another collared elk was recently killed by a lion and one elk was killed by wolves. Of 9 radio-collared elk that left Yellowstone Park in winter 2000/2001, six were killed by hunters north of the Park. Basically the information to date shows that the elk population has not been noticeably affected by wolf predation other than old cows seem to be taken out of the population by wolves.

A similar pattern has been seen among elk in the Jackson, WY area. The overall elk numbers are not changing (still above management objectives-despite attempts to harvest more elk through hunting) but calf/cow ratios appear to be increasing slightly. This may be occurring because wolves are targeting very old cow elk (average about 15 years-old) that have far fewer calves than female elk in their prime (less than 9 years-old) (i.e., the cows that wolves take are the least productive so the cows that are left have the most calves). This information has not been analyzed in detail and caution should be used interpreting any trends because of the natural year-to-year variability in wild animal populations that most often result from weather conditions such as drought or severe winter weather.

Information and education and law enforcement

The Annual North American Wolf Conference will be held at Chico Hot Springs, April 3, 1PM until noon, April 5. Information about the conference or to register can be viewed at www09.tierranet.com/forwolves.org/confer2001.html or contact Suzanne Laverty at 208-424-9385.

In addition, Wildlife Veterinary Resources is hosting the Second Wolf Field Techniques Workshop Monday, April 2 and Tuesday, April 3, also at Chico Hot Springs. Wildlife VR is gathering wolf professionals from around the continent to present information on state-of-the-art equipment and techniques for wolf capture and handling for research and management. Wolf professionals are invited to speak. Speaker abstracts should be completed by February 15, 2001. For a proposed agenda and abstract guidelines visit the Wildlife Veterinary Resources at www.wildlife-vet.com

The Service's weekly wolf report can now be viewed at the Service's Region 6 web site at http://www.r6.fws.gov/wolf in addition to the regular distribution.

Contact: Ed Bangs (406)449-5225 x204 or Internet-ED_BANGS@FWS.GOV