What are Mineral County's wolves up to?

| September 9, 2020 12:00 AM

By MONTE TURNER

Mineral Independent

Bringing up the subject of wolves remains touchy. A flashpoint for many who have nothing good to say about them for reasons of their own. How the deer population has dropped. The elk are gone, at least in the areas many hunters always could find them.

Is this all because of wolves or are there factors we might not know about or care to admit that have caused the disruption?

Having the opportunity to visit with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 2 Biologist, Liz Bradley, and wolf specialist Tyler Parks, confirmed some suspicions and explained some information many may not have heard before.

Are the wolves that are currently in Mineral County from the Yellowstone plant in 1995, or, were they already here? Some say the 9-Mile wolves were already here.

The wolves in Mineral County are a combination of wolves that naturally recolonized Northwest Montana from Canada and also wolves that were reintroduced to central Idaho in 1995 and 1996. Yes, the Ninemile wolves naturally recolonized via dispersal of wolves from Canada in the early 1990s. There were also some wolves reported in Fish Creek and other parts of Mineral County in the early ‘90s. Then wolves were reintroduced to central Idaho and Yellowstone Park in 1995 and 1996 (wolves were captured in the central Rockies in Canada and 30 were released in Yellowstone and 30 in central Idaho. As the wolves in the central Idaho population grew and expanded, we started to see some collared Idaho wolves show up in Mineral County.

Old timers say there were many more elk before the wolves. Others say the wolves taught them to combine the small groups into big herds for better protection, and the same amount of elk are still here.

There were definitely more elk in the Burdette Creek area of Fish Creek in the late 1980s and 1990s. The decline of this herd of elk coincided with the arrival and growth of the wolf population. There used to be 300-400 elk in Burdette Creek and now we see less than 50 during our spring surveys.

But we’ve seen elk increase in other places like hunting district 201, which includes the Ninemile. In the early '80s we were counting 100-200 elk in Hunter District 201. Now we count between 800-900 elk.

We believe the reason we see such differences between HD 201 and Fish Creek is because of the habitat. Burdette Creek is more of a shrub than a grass winter range and we’re seeing conifer encroachment due to fire suppression. The canopy has been closing in much of the surrounding higher elevation summer range as well, also due to lack of fire and forest management. The elk are therefore in poorer condition, especially in winter when they’re most vulnerable to wolves and mountain lions, so likely to be more affected by predation. Hunting District 201 has better quality habitat, including private lands that are irrigated and provide highly nutritious forage. In the last 10 years we saw elk populations fall below our population objectives in HD 200 and HD 202, but for the last several years they have been back within objective. HD 201 is over our population objective for elk, while Fish Creek is below objective.

Estimated number of packs in Mineral County and average number in a pack? Has this increased/decreased and why do you feel that?

There are currently an estimated 14 packs that spend at least part of the year in Mineral County, but many of these packs straddle the Idaho border and/or Sanders County and Missoula County lines. The number of packs in Mineral County has fluctuated slightly over the last 10 years but overall has been fairly stable. There is an average of five wolves in a pack. We’ve seen the average pack size decrease since the public gained the opportunity to hunt and trap them in 2012.

Does climate change affect wolves?

Not that we’re aware of. Although wolves do better in winters where there is deep snow because it is easier to catch prey that aren’t able to run away as fast.

How many are harvested during the trapping/hunting season on average here?

We see an average of 16 wolves harvested in Mineral County each year.

This is the gray wolf, right? Some say this isn’t the original wolf that was here before they were wiped out. If true, what was here, and do you know why those weren’t placed back here?

The common name for canis lupus is “gray wolf” although they can vary in color from gray to white to black and colors in between. As mentioned above, wolves were already naturally colonizing Mineral County from Canada before any reintroductions occurred. Those wolves were coming from the same places where the wolves were captured for the reintroduction. Wolves are amazing travelers and can cover hundreds, even thousands of miles, so wolves have been moving up and down the Rocky Mountains for thousands of years. Today, we see some wolves travel north into Canada and we still see wolves show up in Montana from Canada. In the historical record, there’s nothing to suggest the wolf we have here in Montana today is any different than the one here a hundred years ago.

Livestock predation in Mineral County….how serious is it and are lions more to blame than wolves?

We haven’t seen a lot of livestock predation in Mineral County, mainly because we don’t have nearly as many livestock as most other montana counties. However, we have had a few incidents and one unfortunate exception was some miniature horses that were killed by wolves in 2010. The pack that was responsible was entirely eliminated by USDA Wildlife Services after that incident. Statewide, wolf depredation on livestock has decreased since wolves were delisted and public hunting and trapping were put in place.

Do they kill just to kill, or do they kill to eat?

Wolves can get killed or injured in the process of catching big, powerful animals like elk with their teeth. They take blows from hooves and antlers and sometimes break bones and lose teeth. They have many more unsuccessful hunts than successful ones. For these reasons wolves typically completely consume their kills, leaving only traces of hair and bone fragments behind. Often, wolf scats will include fragments from deer hooves. Wolves tend to take easier prey (old, young, injured) and they scavenge too. It’s much easier for a wolf to scavenge a carcass (roadkill or scraps from a hunter’s kill) than to kill something. When you run across a carcass in the woods it can sometimes look like the wolves left it. But wolves will often return to kill sites, even if they’re temporarily displaced by human scent.

To humans, how dangerous are wolves?

Wolves are very rarely dangerous to humans. There have been some documented attacks on people but they are usually cases where wolves have habituated to and lost their fear of people. However, wolves can be very dangerous to domestic dogs. Wolves are territorial and they see dogs as direct competitors and will kill them. Many cases of dog attacks occur in rural areas where people have left their dog outside and unattended at night or in the early morning. Hound handlers also have to be very careful when hunting lions with dogs in wolf country. People out hiking with dogs should also be cautious in wolf country and keep their dog close.

What are some good things wolves have brought or changed?

There are a number of people that like wolves and enjoy the opportunity to see wolves in the wild. Yellowstone Park has become the No. 1 destination in the world to view and photograph wild wolves and the local tourist economy has benefited. But it’s different having wolves or grizzly bears in your backyard than watching them on the television screen, or through a spotting scope in Yellowstone. There are some very real challenges that come with having large predators on the landscape. Those who have actively hunted wolves through spot-and-stalk, tracking and calling consider them a rewarding, though challenging quarry. Likewise, most trappers find them smart and extremely cautious, especially the mature animals. So, there’s the satisfaction of knowing you did a bunch of things right in taking one.

Wolf season for archery is Sept. 5-14. Rifle season is from Sept. 15 through March 15, 2021. Trapping is from Dec. 15 through Feb. 28, 2021.

For a Montana resident with a combination hunting license, the first wolf tag is $10. The second through fifth tags are $12 each. For nonresident hunters with a combination hunting license, the cost for the first tag is $25 and the next four tags are $50 each.

If the hunter does not have a combination license, all five tags for residents will be $12 each and $25 each for nonresidents. Resident or nonresident, the limit is five wolves per hunter.