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Gray wolves: Bitterroot hunt could almost halve population, state biologists say

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Dustin Nielson of Darby's Big Bear Taxidermy examines a wolf pelt from Alaska. Nielson hopes that this year's wolf hunting season will mean more work for the Darby shop where local business has dropped with the recent decline in elk numbers.

HAMILTON - The Bitterroot River drainage - including Lolo Creek - is home to somewhere between 80 and 100 wolves.

By year's end, that number could be cut nearly in half if hunters are successful in Montana's second wolf hunt and focus their efforts on Ravalli County.

That was one bit of information passed on by a trio of state biologists to the Ravalli County Commission in a 2 1/2-hour meeting Tuesday afternoon.

The commission is in the midst of collecting information about wolves. After giving the general public a chance to vent on both sides of the issue earlier this month, the commission opened its doors to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

They and a roomful of mostly local residents heard about wolf and ungulate management efforts in the Bitterroot and the upcoming wolf hunt.

FWP wildlife manager Mike Thompson told the commission the state is looking for balance during the upcoming wolf hunt, with a goal of reducing the overall numbers of the predator.

While some don't see any compatibility between having wolves in the state and hunting them, Thompson said it can't happen any other way.

"We recognize that we have to hunt them to have wolves here," he said. "People won't tolerate it any other way."

This year's statewide quota of 220 is expected to drop overall wolf numbers, including this year's pups, by about 7 percent.

The state doesn't intend the quota to be a number for a sustainable harvest. Instead, the hope is to stop the trend of a steady increase in numbers of wolves across the state and bring that population into control, Thompson said.

No one knows for sure how this year's hunt will fare.

Thompson said he and other biologists aren't "extremely confident" that hunters will be able to fill the quota by Dec. 31, when the wolf season is scheduled to end.

Several residents expressed the same concern, including some who told the biologists the hunt doesn't go far enough.

Bud Martin took it one step further, saying FWP had completely failed in controlling predators.

"They've mismanaged bears. They've mismanaged mountain lions and now they're going to mismanage wolves," Martin said before asking the commission to consider statutes that allowed the county to take over control of predator management.

Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association president Tony Jones said the state is facing an uphill battle in getting wolf numbers under control due to years of court battles over delisting the species.

Wolf numbers in Montana hit the population criteria for delisting in 2002, but litigation kept that from happening.

It would have been easier to manage for lower numbers if the state had been allowed to start managing wolves when their numbers were smaller, Jones said.

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FWP wolf biologist Liz Bradley said the state took over management of wolves under a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2004.

"The goal had always been to hand management fully over to the state," she said. "It took longer that we all expected."

The state monitors wolves more closely than any other wildlife species in the state, Bradley said, in an interview before the commission meeting.

About one-third of all the known wolf packs in the state include animals with a radio-collar. In the Bitterroot, half of the packs have a collared wolf.

"It makes a difference," she said. "We are able to follow them and keep an eye on them."

State wolf biologists depend on local residents to locate new wolf packs. They look for clusters of reported sightings to key in on new locations.

This year, the public helped Bradley find a new wolf pack in the Sweeney Creek area in the west Bitterroot. She has since been able to capture and collar a wolf in that pack.

"I wouldn't have known about that pack without the reports that we received over the late winter and spring," she said.

All the information that Bradley gathers about individual packs is available to the public on FWP's website at fwp.mt.gov/wolf.

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FWP Bitterroot-based biologist Craig Jourdonnais filled the commission in on ungulate management efforts in Ravalli County.

The Bitterroot Valley has one of the longest-running elk surveys in the state, Jourdonnais said.

The information gathered from those surveys needs to be carefully interpreted, he said.

For instance, last spring's heavy snowpack pushed elk down on wintering grounds where they were easier to count than most years.

Some groups have taken the fact that Jourdonnais spotted 400 more elk than the year before to claim that elk herds in the Bitterroot are growing.

That's not so, he said.

"You have to be very careful in the way you interpret those numbers," he said. "You have to look at the long-term trends."

Jourdonnais also talked about the current large-scale study on elk in southern reaches of the Bitterroot.

Elk numbers in the West Fork of the Bitterroot were in freefall about the time Jourdonnais arrived in the valley in 2005. The decline followed a legislative mandate that bumped up elk harvest in the area in an effort to keep the herd size from growing too large.

Normally, the state would just back off the antlerless harvest to stabilize a declining elk herd.

"In this case it didn't work," Jourdonnais said. "It led us to believe that public hunting was not causing the freefall."

Elk calf numbers were much lower than what's needed to sustain an annual hunting season.

"We have lost three age classes in the West Fork since then," he said.

The state has since cut out all antlerless elk harvest and for the first time ever has limited bull harvest to 25 permit holders.

"We are trying to keep ahead of this thing and save the baby makers," Jourdonnais said.

With a "groundswell of local support," Jourdonnais said FWP started a three-year study last winter in partnership with the University of Montana to study the elk herd.

Last winter, crews captured 44 cow elk and radio-collared them. They also used a portable ultrasound device to measure body fat and pregnancy rates.

The researchers found that 98 percent of all the cow elk in the East Fork and the portion of the West Fork that had been heavily burned in the 2000 fires were pregnant, but only 57 percent of the cows in the upper reaches of the West Fork were pregnant.

"That's one of the lower pregnancy rates that I've seen," Jourdonnais said. "It makes us wonder if maybe there aren't some habitat issues too. This thing may not be as simple as who is eating what."

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