Gray Wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains

From: Gray Wolf Recovery Coordinator, Helena, MT 12/21/01

Subject: Status of Gray Wolf Recovery, Weeks of 11/30-12/21, 2001

The U.S. Department of the Interior had all of its email shut down by a court order during the first week of December. This disrupted distribution of the weekly reports and has also prevented all email communication from and to DOI employees, including the Fish and Wildlife Service. We do not know when we will be back on line. Sorry for the inconvenience and I thank others for distributing the weekly for us meanwhile.

MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY NEW YEAR

Monitoring

The alpha male from the Chief Joseph pack was found dead north of West Yellowstone early in the week and was investigated by law enforcement. His carcass was examined and he had a deep puncture wound in his chest. Other wolves had died from being impaled (running into or being thrown into sticks) while attacking an elk. He had also been attacked by other wolves and that finished him. When his carcass was located the Cougar pack was nearby. Seems his luck just ran out all the way around.

A wolf carcass was recovered near Ennis, MT (GYA) and its death is under investigation.

Five male wolves (3 pups and 2 adult) from the Yellowstone Delta pack were captured by helicopter darting on the 10th. Even the pups weighed over 100lbs. The pack of up to 17 wolves was down to one collar. In winter they normally move into areas where they can’t be captured. Doug Smith did a great job of organizing some tough logistics and did some great darting- Congratulations! As usual Bob Hawkins and Roger Stradley did some talented and safe flying. Annual intensive winter capture and radio-collaring efforts will begin in early January.

See the 2000 annual report http://mountain-prairie.fws.gov/wolf/annualrpt00/ for a map of pack locations and home ranges. The interagency 2001 annual report is being prepared and should be available by February 2002.

Please report wolf sightings!! If hunters or outdoors enthusiasts report evidence of wolves to you please pass that information along to the Service.

Control

A beagle was killed west of Cody, WY on the 4th, but the owner buried the dog before it could be examined by Wildlife Services. The rancher saw 2 wolves kill his dog but when Wildlife Services investigated a couple of hours later they found only fresh coyote tracks and howled-up coyotes nearby. In these types of situations Wildlife Services and the Service must rely on the physical evidence at the scene to confirm any eye-witness accounts to determine our wolf control response. This is not a judgement of what the eye-witness saw, only a way to standardize investigation procedures and make them fairer to everyone. The Defenders also has to rely on "hard" evidence collected by WS as they try to determine if compensation maybe warranted. While there is no compensation or wolf control for a single instance of pet depredation, as in this situation, these conflicting sources of information can understandably cause controversy and can be difficult to resolve satisfactorily. In this instance the rancher was trained to use and was provided with bean bag and cracker shells by the Service on the 10th. He appreciated that opportunity because the Absaroka pack does routinely use this area.

On the 10th, WS (Jim Stevens and new MT western district supervisor Kraig Glazier) investigated a report of a sheep being killed by the Ninemile pack. They confirmed the sheep was killed by wolves from wounds, tracks, radio signals, and howling at the sheep’s carcass. Another sheep was killed by am. on the 11th. Fontaine assisted WS to set up a radio activated guard (light and siren scaring device) near the remaining 19 sheep later that week. On the 20th, WS investigated and confirmed that 2 more sheep had been killed by wolves. The RAG box had not been activated, likely a malfunction. Lethal control is being considered.

On the 19th the adult female, yearling male and 6 pups (now about 75lbs.each) for the Gravelly pack were released just north of Yaak, MT. Lone wolves have been documented in these area for years but no resident packs are known to have used this area. It is doubtful the wolves will stay near where they are released for long and they will probably drift south slightly. The adult pack members had been involved in killing about 35 sheep in the Gravelly range this summer. The adult male was shot but the female her 6 pups and a yearling male were put in a pen for relocation after the pups were grown. Since 1989, 117 wolves have been moved and 101 have been killed to reduce conflicts with livestock. This area was picked as a release site because livestock are rare, deer are plentiful, northwest Montana has the fewest overall numbers of wolves, and has the last remaining seemingly high quality wolf habitat that is unoccupied by resident wolf packs. The release was coordinated with local state and federal resource agencies and local residents near the release site were contacted. All 8 were radio-collared and will be monitored. In the future wolves will rarely be relocated, the possible exception will be in instances like this were pups the were too young to kill livestock or hunt for themselves but were part of a pack that was involved in chronic livestock depredations. To avoid killing young pups the Service may continue to relocate pups with an adult or two to help them learn the ways of the wild. If any of these wolves are involved in further livestock depredations they will be killed. Thanks to the Turner Endangered Species Fund biologists and veterinarians for taking care of the wolves since June and coordinating the pen capture. Fontaine and Meier conducted the release. Good job crew!

Research

The 30-day Yellowstone winter wolf predation study ended on December 15th. Bad weather reduced the daily aerial monitoring schedule. Flights were conducted on only 11 of the 30 days they were attempted . The continuing drought reduces summer forage quality and quantity and does not allow bulls to replenish their reserve of body fat following the rut. This results in bulls going into winter in poorer condition than normal and thus they become more vulnerable to wolf predation. Speculation is that all elk on the northern range of Yellowstone are going into winter with lower body fat due to the ongoing drought conditions and poor forage conditions. This could result in a high winter die-off and lower elk calf production next spring even in winter weather is not severe. However kills rates this fall seemed fairly typical.

The Park monitored 10 packs during Nov. 15 - Dec. 5. The counts were: Swan Lake-7 wolves, Leopold-14, Rose II-9, Druid peak-23 in main and 7-8 in split, Mollies’- 10, Delta-16, Cougar Creek-6, Chief Joseph-11, Tower-2. In addition Sheep Mtn. had 7 wolves. Data is tabulated only for packs monitored by both ground and air [Leopold, Rose, Druid]. Observed kills were: Leopold- 7 kills in 30 days- 5 bulls, 1 cow, 1 unk. elk. Rose II- 9 kills in 30 days- 5 cows, 2 calves, 2 unk.elk. Druid Peak- 19 kills in 30 days- 11 calves, 1 bull, 3 cows, 4 unk. elk. (also 2 coyotes). Northern Range elk winter counts are being attempted but poor flying weather has prevented their completion.

The 3rd annual wolf/elk winter study in Wyoming has begun. One team of 4 volunteers (college students that just graduated) is tracking the Teton (12 wolves), Gros Ventre (2-4 uncollared wolves), and new Gos Ventre pair (1 collared) to see how they use elk on the 3 WY elk feeding grounds in the Gros Ventre drainage, just outside Jackson, WY. The students back track wolves to find kills and determine movements, and monitor elk movements and distribution on the feed grounds. A companion study is being conducted by 4 student volunteers from Northwest College (Powell, WY) who are tracking the Absaroka, Sunlight, Beartooth, and possibly Sun River packs west of Cody, WY.

Information and education and law enforcement

A Utah man plead guilty to shooting and then transporting a wolf from central Idaho in 2000. He received 8 months in jail, $500 fine, and one year supervised release with no hunting during that time. Congratulations to Service LE and Utah Division of Wildlife Resources on a job well done!!

Montana Q2 (KTVQ- CBS) out of Billings will run the wolf segment they did in cooperation with

MT FW&P, Service, National Park Service, and local ranchers at 10:00 pm December 24th. It may run again on New Year’s eve or day.

The book "Large Mammal Restoration: Ecological and Sociological Challenges in the 20st Century" edited by David S. Maeher, Reed F. Noss and Jeffery L. Larkin was published by Island Press. It has several wolf articles including: Return of wolf... to OR and CA; Feasibility of wolf reintroduction to Adirondack Park; Outcomes of hard and soft releases of reintroduced wolves in central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park" (by Steve Fritts, Curt Mack, Doug Smith, Kerry Murphy, Mike Phillips, Mike Jimenez, Ed Bangs, Joe Fontaine, Carter Niemeyer, Wayne Brewster, and Timm Kaminsky); Health aspects of Gray Wolf Reintroduction (Mark Johnston); Resorting the Mexican Wolf (Wendy Brown and Dave Parsons). Information about this book can be accessed at www.islandpress.org or Island Press, P.O. Box 7, Covelo, CA 95428.

Dr. John Shivik published an article "The other tools for wolf management" in WOLF! Magazine (wolf_magazine@wolfpark.org) . The article is about all the alternatives to lethal control that are being tested to reduce wolf/livestock conflict. John is a wildlife researcher and project leader at the USDA/Wildlife Services, National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, CO

Bangs was in Wichita, KS for a lunch meeting between R-6 and R-2 and western State Fish and Game Directors. They discussed the status of the National Wolf Reclassification proposed rule, ie. public comment has been analyzed and the rule will be finalized as soon as possible but most likely after the new Service Director is confirmed. On the 10th, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission announced it was asking the Service for up to $250,000 to start a state wolf management plan.

Jimenez gave a presentation to about 25 interpreters and sleigh drivers in Jackson, WY on the 14th. The Service routinely helps with seasonal employee orientation for the National Elk Refuge’s winter sleigh rides on the Refuge. Thousands of tourists take advantage of the opportunity to see the thousands of elk on the refuge and wolf information is of extremely high interest to visitors.

Bangs gave a short presentation to about 15 students at a Univ. Montana wildlife conservation genetics class on the 13th. The class was using the issue of what is a viable and recovered wolf population in the northern Rocky Mountains as one of their case studies.

The annual interagency wolf coordination meeting was held in Helena, MT on December 6th. Twenty-four agency representatives (FWS- R-1 & R-6, FWS-LE, NPS, WS, FS, UM, TESF, MT FW&P) attended. A severe winter storm in Idaho interrupted travel by the Nez Perce Tribe and state of Idaho. The group discussed:

Wolf Monitoring- About 572 wolves in 35 breeding pairs are estimated to be in MT, ID, and WY and 2001 will be the second year of the 3-year count down towards meeting the recovery goal of having 30 or more breeding pairs for 3 successive years distributed in the northern rocky mountains of MT, ID and WY. There are no known wolves in adjacent states but dispersal and eventual pair formation (especially into OR and WA) is likely. Winter capture and radio-collaring will begin soon. LE, WS, researchers and others expressed a strong interest in keeping a large proportion (20%-30% of the wolves collared), while some believed such a high level of monitoring was biologically unnecessary and prohibitively expensive. However, public demand for very intensive monitoring, from both wolf proponents and opponents, will likely mean that intensive radio-collaring and monitoring will continue to be a high priority. Work continues on the reclassification of a final rule to reclassify wolves in most places to threatened status (the experimental population areas will not be affected) and preparation for a possible delisting proposal in the northern Rocky Mountains by 2003. The states of MT and ID should complete their wolf management plans by summer 2002. The status of the WY state plan is uncertain. The states will not support delisting if some form of addition funding can not be provide for post-delisting wolf management.

Wolf control- Somewhat surprisingly, despite an increasing wolf population the number of confirmed livestock depredations (35 cattle and 126 sheep in 2001) and the amount of wolf control (18 wolves moved and 17 killed) has remained at the same level for the past 3 years. It was also noted that confirmed livestock depredations are some faction (whether a large or a small fraction is still a subject of speculation) of the total number of livestock losses caused by wolves. Some studies indicate that there maybe 2 or up to 5 actual losses for every confirmed wolf-caused loss depending on terrain, herding practices, vegetation, proximity to wolf den or rendevous sites, etc. As in the past, a few lone wolves were responsible for most of the sheep losses. The use of RAG (Radio Activated Guards), less-than-lethal munitions, and other non-lethal tools were also discussed. The group also discussed the overall wolf control program, and the potential of coyote control with M-44 and traps to cause wolf mortality. The group generally agreed that these types of decisions should remain flexible but within the overall control guidance and are best made by the on-the-ground field people on a case-by case basis. The group recognized that because of increased wolf numbers and distribution there will be fewer instances where relocations will be a viable management tool. More lethal control will be implemented. Lethal control will also more likely involve Service-issued lethal take permits to the local landowners who are most directly affected by chronic wolf depredation.

Wolf Research- The wolf program is attempting to increasingly use peer review and scientific publication on the wolf data that is being collected, hopefully to improve management. Currently graduate students have just completed or are currently conducting research on a variety of wolf related issues of concern to the public. Students include: Univ. Montana (control of depredating wolves including relocations & effectiveness of compensation programs for wolf and other predator damage), Montana State Univ. (wolf/elk relationships in the Madison and Gallatin valleys [GYA]), Univ Alberta (wolf/elk population), Michigan Tech. Univ (wolf/elk/hunter relationships), Univ. Minnesota (wolf/elk/predator relationships), and Univ. Idaho (cattle mortality caused by wolves & a GIS model of wolf habitat selection). Several scientific publications on these and related topics are being prepared and others are encouraged. The 2001 annual report should be completed by Feb. 2002. The draft 2001 data were circulated for comment.

THE ANNUAL WOLF CONFERENCE WILL BE HELD IN BOISE, ID INSTEAD OF CHICO, MT THIS YEAR, AT THE SUGGESTION OF SEVERAL AGENCY PEOPLE WHO WANTED MORE VARIETY. THE CONF. IS SCHEDULED FOR MID TO LATE APRIL. THE CALL FOR PRESENTATIONS IS OUT SO PLEASE CONTRIBUTE SOME IDEAS!! CONTACT Joe_Fontaine@FWS.GOV ASAP. Please try to attend- especially those that made suggestions to move the Conf. to a new location each year so more people from their agency/area could attend- you got your wish and the ball is in your court!

Wolf Education/Information/Law Enforcement- Wolf killings are a very serious issue and a top priority of Service Special Agents (see above UT LE story). There is also a need for continued pro-active public education and information. We will try to get the weekly report out in a timely manner and make it the main timely informational document for the overall program. There appears to be a lot of mis-information being circulated about the potential impact of wolf on ungulate populations that will require a multi-agency long-term response. Service budgets are not going to increase so the Service’s program will increase management efforts or personnel beyond current levels. In fact because of the increase in wolf numbers and distribution the same level of Service management effort must be applied to a bigger area. The public and agency cooperators will be made aware that this will result in less intensive management and monitoring, possibly slower response times to conflicts, and "quicker" solutions [ie. less non-lethal techniques and more lethal control). The key to the program now will be lowering public expectations about the level of agency effort that is required to manage a wolf population, and not just trying to pump more federal funding into the program. It appears unlikely that the wolf population, at least in MT, ID and WY, will grow much larger than it is now (we think it is unlikely there will ever be over 1,000 wolves in MT, ID, and WY) because most of the highest quality wolf habitat is already occupied by wolves.

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

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