A lone gray wolf spent just 18 minutes feeding on a dead bull last month above Missoula's South Hills, but photos of its visit have extended the stay.
"Yesterday it started to hit Facebook pretty hard," and quickly went viral, bull owner John Rimel said on Monday.
The pictures from an automatic field camera show a radio-collared, 100-pound male wolf approaching the bull with its tail between its legs. The short visit was likely due to a mountain lion having already claimed the carcass, Rimel said.
The 2,000-pound Angus bull died Jan. 28 after getting in a fight with another bull in the pasture. Although it appeared fine after the fight, it was found dead about 12 hours later. By then, the body had decomposed too much to be butchered, and it was too large to be taken to a rendering plant in Missoula.
So Rimel followed his customary practice of hauling the carcass up the mountain, far from the pasture.
"I was quite surprised we'd attracted a wolf," Rimel said. "In the past when we've disposed of them on the hill, it hasn't been a problem. We'll have to do something else with carcasses when we
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University of Montana biologist Kerry Foresman was working on a book about Rocky Mountain mammals with Rimel's publishing company, and asked to place two of his field cameras by the carcass. He, too, was not expecting to catch a wolf. The better bet was fishers, martens, mountain lions and possibly wolverines.
"I didn't even think there were wolves in the area," Foresman said. "John would be the last person who'd want to bait them in. He's calving there now."
The cameras were active for most of February. They were triggered by both heat and motion sensors, sensitive enough to pick up field mice moving by the bull carcass. Of the 24,000 frames recorded, the wolf appears in about 20 on Feb. 22.
The lion, on the other hand, often slept by the carcass and probably stayed nearby. Foresman said the wolf made two brief visits, grabbing a couple mouthfuls of meat while always watching uphill for the lion.
"When the wolf came in, the whole area had the reek of mountain lion," Foresman said. "The wolf looks really nervous, tail down, constantly turning around checking its backside. A pack of wolves could handle a lion, but it's the other way around when it's just one wolf."
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Liz Bradley said the wolf was likely a lone disperser moving through the area. There is an active pack in the Welcome Creek area whose members have been reported in the Sapphire Mountains as far north as Miller Creek. But this wolf could also have moved east from Idaho, she said.
Bradley was unable to pick up a signal from the wolf's collar, and said it was possibly out of batteries. She asked anyone who sees the wolf or its sign to report it to FWP at 542-5500.