Wolf pack numbers in the Blackfoot River watershed northeast of Missoula have grown from one in 2007 to at least a dozen this year.
But wildlife officials hope the experience adapting to wolves in the Bitterroot Valley to the south may produce a different outcome for other wildlife.
“I know people are really concerned about the wolf numbers,” Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Seeley Lake biologist Jay Kolbe said of the population increase. “But they also know we have a more diverse predator population here. We have historic numbers of grizzly bears, and black bears, coyotes and lions here, too. And we’ve had a more integrated broad response.”
After seeing elk herds suffer in the Bitterroot and lower Clark Fork drainages over the past five years, FWP game managers cut back the antlerless elk harvest in the Blackfoot to boost cow and calf survival there. Elk numbers are slightly below or at annual objective levels in nine of the 10 hunting districts in the Blackfoot region. The last district, covering lots of private ranchland around Helmville, is over objective.
Hunting seasons for black bears and mountain lions also were adjusted upward to avoid creating a “predator pit” where too many carnivores are chasing a dwindling number of ungulates.
Despite the upswing in wolf numbers, Blackfoot ranchers have seen little impact on their livestock. Blackfoot Challenge wildlife committee coordinator Seth Wilson said there’ve been only a handful of probable wolf depredations, and no confirmed incidents in 2013.
“We’ve confirmed over the last five years less than four wolf kills per year on an 800,000-acre area,” Wilson said. “That’s about 35 ranches. We’re certainly seeing wolves, tracking them, but the good news is we have not seen a concurrent rise in livestock depredations to wolves over that period. It’s not having an economic impact on ranches.”
Wilson credited the Blackfoot Challenge’s wolf rider program, which employs a trained wolf spotter roaming daily among ranch pastures watching for predator activity. The wolf rider helps set up electric fences around calving areas, strings fladry flag lines around grazing areas, and quickly removes carcasses from accidental deaths or predator attacks so other bears or wolves don’t hang around to scavenge the leftovers.
“We haven’t done any active hazing this season,” Wilson said, “but we believe having a human presence out there can deter a wolf.”
According to FWP wolf biologist Liz Bradley, Blackfoot wolf numbers expanded steadily until 2010, when they leveled out. Surveys now indicate between 50 and 60 wolves in the region, while the number of packs went from nine in 2010 to perhaps 13 in 2013.
Bradley said that may reflect hunting pressure on wolves, which are running in slightly smaller packs than in previous years. The average size has dropped from seven animals to around five or six. That could be good, because larger packs often get in trouble preying on domestic livestock.
The Bitterroot Valley recorded 12 wolf packs in 2007 and 13 in 2012. The Mineral County area west of Missoula had seven packs in 2007 and at least 13 this year.
Hunters have killed five wolves in the two wolf hunting districts comprising the Missoula and Blackfoot valleys this season. They’ve shot another eight in the remainder of Region 2, which covers most of west-central Montana.
For the entire state, the take is 46 wolves this fall. The majority of wolves are killed by hunters seeking other game, such as deer or elk.
“Hunters are seeing a lot of wolves, and lots of them don’t have (wolf) licenses,” Kolbe said. “They’re a little upset with themselves. But it’s eye-opening how many are out there.”