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STEVENSVILLE - Federal wildlife officials captured half of the Bass Creek wolf pack Saturday and flew them to a holding facility in McCall, Idaho.

A recent killing of one calf and the disappearance of two others in the Bass Creek area precipitated the wolves' relocation from their den in the Bitterroot Mountains west of the Ruffatto family ranch.

"A neighboring rancher had a depredation confirmed," said Joe Fontaine, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's wolf recovery program in Montana.

The agency does not identify the rancher who suffered the livestock loss, unless the rancher chooses otherwise. In this case, the rancher did not want his name released.

Fontaine said the policy protects the rancher from a sometimes harsh public reaction to an issue as contentious as wolves.

The calf was killed last Wednesday or Thursday. Two other calves were reported missing, Fontaine said.

Earlier this month, wildlife officials confirmed that a wolf pack had settled in the Bass Creek area. An adult male and female had a litter of seven to nine pups sometime in mid-April and denned about a mile from the Ruffatto family ranch, just south of Bass Creek Road.

Last week's calf kill was not at the Ruffattos' or at neighbor Ed Cummings' ranch, both ranchers said Monday.

Hank Fischer, the northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife, said Monday the organization will compensate ranchers for any confirmed kills.

"We haven't got a report yet from wildlife service, but I assume they have verified losses if they are removing (the wolves)," Fischer said.

If federal wildlife officials verify a loss, Defenders of Wildlife compensates the rancher for the livestock's full market value.

If a kill can't be verified, but it appears highly likely that a wolf is the culprit, the organization will reimburse the rancher for half of the animal's market value.

Wildlife officials are now attempting to trap at least two remaining wolf pups and their mother. They captured three pups and their father Friday and flew them to Idaho on Saturday.

"We'll keep them there until winter time and then release them all into the Idaho wilderness area," Fontaine said.

Officials trapped a fourth pup at the den Sunday. The fifth was trapped Monday morning. Those two were flown to Idaho on Monday afternoon.

Officials hope to capture the remainder and reunite them with the rest of the pack at the same facility.

"We're going to try our best to try to come away with every one of them," Fontaine said.

Biologists check traps set near the den once or twice a day. Fontaine wouldn't speculate how long it may take to complete the captures.

"We don't want to spook the female," he said. If she becomes too frightened, she may move the remaining pups elsewhere and reduce the chances of relocating her.

"We want to take it slow and easy and be diligent about it," he said.

If a pup is left behind, it would likely die because the youngsters aren't old enough to fend for themselves.

"We still may not turn up all of them," Fontaine said. At just 15 pounds, the pups may fall prey to other predators such as coyotes, mountain lions or bears.

"They are very vulnerable at this age," he said.

When relocation is completed, the wolves will remain at the McCall facility until winter in an effort to break the pack's desire to return to its old territory, Fontaine said.

Once released into the wilderness, the adult male and female will each have one strike against them. If they prey on livestock again, Fontaine said, they will have to be killed.

The pups will start with a clean slate, he said, because at this point they have no idea where their food is coming from.

He said he expects the pups will be able to cope with the relocation.

"They are hardy animals," he said. "It would be better if these guys were a lot older. But it's an ideal time in the fact that it will stop the depredations and that is what we're after here."

Tuesday - 6/22/99

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