Montana Wolves and an Option for Coexistence!

I have just returned from a spectacular one week trip to Bozeman Montana! The purpose of the visit was to explore the possibilities for developing a wolf scent marking project on a private ranch, south of Bozeman.

Wolves were completely eradicated in Yellowstone Ecosystem in the early 20th century.  Ranchers mounted resistance to their reintroduction, but in 1995 US Fish and Wildlife Service released wolves into Yellowstone. This release was in part to manage the recolonization of wolves, something that was naturally happening from Canadian wolf populations.  With this release the wolves increased rapidly, changing the ecosystem in unforseen ways and soon the population had achieved many of the benchmarks set by US Fish and Wildlife to consider de-listing from the Endangered Species List.  With this de-listing states were required to provide a management plan for the wolves that ventured beyond the boundaries of the park. Each state has a different approach with varying levels of tolerance.

Wolves started colonizing ranchlands causingconflicts with ranchers. Wolves were primarily killing elk, their natural prey, but this upset locals who feel that wolves are depleting their stock for hunting.  Wolves also ventured close to livestock, so ranchers had to dedicate extra resources to protecting their stock. Ranchers that I have spoken to often say that their ranching operations are on a delicate balance, so by introducing a predator that requires increased investment in livestock protection may tip the balance towards economic instability.

Wolves not only kill livestock, they also can stress them reducing weight gains and effecting birthing rates two of the greatest sources of profit for ranchers.

In many areas the gloves were off. Ranchers would not tolerate wolves.  In other areas, ranchers had an appreciation for wolves and saw an opportunity to try a new approach.  Realizing thatthere were ways of reducing conflict, they started working with organizations that helped mitigate conflict through carcass removal and range riders that herded cattle on horseback. Both are effective at keeping wolves and grizzly bears away from cattle operations.  Some ranchers used flagging, shock collars, flashing lights, taste aversion and loud noises, but wolves often habituate to these approaches.

Wolves however are territorial avoiding costly physical conflict with other packs.  Their ranges are so large that they must advertise their presence through territorial cues such as howling and scent marking. Wolves have evolved an ability to find and interpret these cues to assess the risk of intruding on another pack's territory. Wolves can likely determine hormone profiles in urine that state the sex, reproductive status, stress levels and age of an individual. Wolves may even be able to identify individuals which may allow them to do a rudimentary count of the neighbors numbers and strength. Therefore, wolves have a natural deterrent system far more efficient than the systems that we introduce as scare tactics.

I want to test out the use of territorial cues on wolves on ranchlands near Yellowstone, so I visited colleagues in the region to see what opportunities were available. First, I stopped at a ranch south of Bozeman, where I visited a friend and colleague of mine, a biologist who has been studying collared wolves on the property for years.  She brought me around the ranch suggesting possibilities for doing field trials on the known wolves.  In the late afternoon we went to a rendezvous site of a local pack and saw a few individuals venture from cover to wander in the grass and mark.

Rendez vous site of the wolves

Rendez vous site of the wolves

We discussed the challenges of collaring wolves and she suggested captive facilities for collection of scent marks.  I spent a day visiting the Grizzly and Wolf Discover Center in West Yellowstone, MT. They have 6 captive wolves in 3 enclosures. They were enthusiastic about assisting with a field conservation project and felt that scent collection was possible.  The only catch is that their wolves have been spayed or neutered which will likely impact their hormone profiles.

Captive wolf at the grizzly and wolf discovery center

Captive wolf at the grizzly and wolf discovery center

After speaking to researchers at the Yellowstone Wolf Project andMontana State Biologists, it seemed that there were options for collaborating with ongoing research projects in areas with receptive ranchers.

These conversations got the wheels turning! There are opportunities here to try our approach. With samples from the Discovery Center, and a short pilot study for the wolves on my friends wolf study, I could develop an approach to wolf conflict in collaboration with the Yellowstone Wolf Project. 

three wolves venture out from the rendez vous site.

three wolves venture out from the rendez vous site.

On my last night, I returned to the original ranch. We hiked to the tree line nearest the rendezvous site. Laying on our stomachs we stared 200 yards through binoculars to see if the wolves would come out. Eventually we saw 5-6 adults and 4-5 pups. They were playing, walking around and interacting with each other. This was quite a magical thing to see. Just a week ago I had never seen wolves in the wild and there they were behaving naturally without noticing our presence. As we backed away slowly and reached the vehicle they started to howl. All of them, even the pups. It made me pause, that is the sound of the wild.

We drove across the ridgeline to a spectacular sunset. This was an impressive trip with lots of option for collarboration. Though we are still in the early planning stages, stay tuned for future developments!.