Mountain lions are taking a toll on Liz Bradley’s collared wolves in the Bitterroot this year.
Since January, two wolves radio-collared by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wolf biologist have been killed by mountain lions.
Last week, she found the latest dead wolf in the Warm Springs area, west of Sula.
Like all the others she’s investigated since 2009, the wolf’s skull showed a severe puncture wound – a trademark of a lion kill.
In the Sula case, the lion ate a good portion of the wolf and then covered the carcass with debris.
“It’s hard to say what happened,” Bradley said. “There was no elk or deer carcass nearby that they may have been competing over.”
There was, however, a deer carcass near the dead wolf she found in the Carlton Creek area west of Lolo in January. In that case, the wolf wasn’t consumed, but it did have the same canine tooth puncture through the skull.
“That one was probably a conflict,” she said.
Last year, Bradley found two dead wolves that were probably killed by mountain lions. One was in Davis Creek, east of Lolo, and the other was south of Conner.
In both cases, the carcasses were too far decomposed for positive identification on the cause of death. Both had clear puncture wounds through the top of their skulls.
In 2009, the first apparent lion-killed wolf was discovered in the West Fork area.
The number of wolf and lion encounters is unusual.
“I haven’t heard of it happening anywhere else,” Bradley said. “It’s pretty interesting that the Bitterroot has had so many.”
Large predators sometimes do kill each other. There have been documented cases of that happening in many places around the West.
“They compete for the same resource,” she said. “When there is overlap in areas where you have lots of prey, conflicts occur.”
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Four of the five wolves that Bradley knows were probably killed by mountain lions were fitted with a radio collar.
“It’s too bad because we don’t have those now,” she said.
At the end of last year, Bradley had collars in seven packs in the Bitterroot. She’s now down to four.
“Ideally, we would have at least half of the packs collared in the Bitterroot,” she said.
Bradley estimates there are 14 packs in the Bitterroot, which includes the area around Lolo all the way down the east and west forks of the Bitterroot River.
On average, pack sizes are smaller in the Bitterroot following last year’s hunting season. The largest pack now has nine wolves. Most have four to seven adults, with several including just a male and female.
Going into the pup season, Bradley estimated that there were between 60 and 70 adult wolves in the entire Bitterroot area.
“That’s a little bit lower than what we had in 2011,” she said. “We had about 80 last year. We had some mortality.”
Bradley won’t know this year’s numbers of pups until sometime later this summer.
She is asking the public for help in locating packs for collaring this spring, especially in the Darby and Sula areas, as well as the north Bitterroot Valley.
Sightings can be reported by going to the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks website under the wolf section. For recent wolf sightings of multiple animals, Bradley asks that people call her cell phone at (406) 865-0017.
“I’m especially interesting in hearing about sightings in the Sula area right now,” she said.
If anyone stumbles across a dead wolf or mountain lion, she would be interested in hearing about that too.
Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.