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BUTTE - The people watched the wolves and the wolves watched the elk.

It went on this way for hours.

Retirees Bill Garlish and Pat Pennell of Butte arrived Tuesday morning with spotting scopes, a thermos of coffee and warm clothes at the northbound Feely rest area on Interstate 15.

They witnessed a rare spectacle more commonly found in a national park such as Yellowstone rather than a rest stop parking lot.

"They'll stay here now," said Pennell, a 64-year-old retired miner. "They'll follow this herd till spring."

The two were among a handful of motorists who watched throughout the morning as a recently confirmed pack of wolves, known as the Table Mountain pack, milled about near a herd of roughly 300 elk east of the Interstate.

Garlish and Pennell said they spotted seven black wolves and one gray wolf, and others reported the same count, said Vanna Boccadori, a wildlife biologist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Boccadori said she counted between 250 and 300 elk and said the wolves could live alongside the herd for some time.

"If that's their food source, they will spend time right there," she said. "Wherever the elk herd goes, they might follow close behind."

This elk herd is separate from one about half its size in the Beef Trail Road area south of Butte, she said.

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On Tuesday morning, the elk herd - which Boccadori said resides around the Humbug Spires area - was visible from the rest stop with the naked eye.

The wolves sat above them looking down from a ridgetop.

Wolves have long been suspected in the area, but this pack was only confirmed by wildlife biologists in recent months, she said.

The wolves were seen just 12 miles southwest of Butte and comprise the closest confirmed pack to the Mining City.

This pack has not targeted any livestock in the area and is not linked to any depredations, said Nathan Lance, an FWP wolf management specialist.

He said reports of wolf activity in the area date back to 2008 and that wildlife officials identified this pack last year.

The pack includes somewhere between five and eight wolves and some were seen during the 2009 hunting season, but none were killed, Lance said.

Boccadori said the presence of the wolves is not considered any more of a concern than mountain lions or bears, "unless they get into trouble, then it goes into a different arena."

She said wildlife officials would like to remove the stigma associated with wolves, with hopes that people begin viewing them as a part of the natural landscape.

"As long as they don't get in trouble with livestock, they have a place on the landscape," Boccadori said.

Boccadori said a female wolf killed recently for chasing cows on the Garrison ranch nearby on the west side of Interstate 15 was not linked to this new pack.

That wolf, which wore a radio collar, was from the Philipsburg area, she said.

"It just goes to show that wolves are moving all over the landscape," Boccadori said.

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Wolf managers met Tuesday to discuss tweaking the state's wolf management areas for future hunting seasons, she said.

Rather than having three large units, the state may designate a number of smaller units in an effort to use hunters to more effectively manage wolf populations, Boccadori said.

Last year, hunters killed 72 wolves during the first hunting season for the animals in Montana history.

Montana Standard reporter Justin Post can be reached at (406) 496-5572 or at justin.post@lee.net.

 

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