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My October Surprise – A Wolf Poaching

The following events took place in October 2014, just after Wyoming’s wolf hunt was cancelled due to wolves being re-listed as Endangered.

October in Wyoming has the best weather. It can be raining, snowing, sunshine, or all of the above at once. Blustery one day, then in the 60s the next, Indian Summer seems to come and go until suddenly, one day, it’s winter.

I’m packing up for a work trip to California for several months, but before I leave I want to ‘say goodbye’ to my beloved valley and the mountains that envelop it. Today there are snow flurries off and on, low clouds obscuring the horizon. I’ve got a place in mind to hike to. It’s one of my special, or sacred, spots—an Indian Sheep Eater bighorn sheep trap. I especially like this place because not only is it high up above a cliff edge with a magnificent view of the Absarokas, but also the ‘trap’ is formed from two large boulders running into a ‘V’ shape. The acme of this formation is littered with ancient logs, hundreds of years old, preventing the sheep from squeezing out that end. Native peoples used a system of logs fanning out from the boulders to guide the sheep into the trap. Their dogs helped herd the animals, and possibly people were hidden along the trap line to scare the sheep in the proper direction. Medicine men assisted with the hunt, and I’ve read that male bighorn sheep horns and skulls have been found high up in trees, probably as part of their rituals.

Bighorn sheep

Bighorn Sheep Ewes

The last two years, October was the first month of the gray wolf hunt in Wyoming. Wyoming wolves were delisted in 2012. A ‘trophy’ zone outside Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks allowed an October through December hunt, while in the rest of the state (85%) wolves were labeled as ‘predators’. Along with several other species like coyotes, raccoons, and feral domestic cats, predators can be shot or trapped year-round, without a second thought. Since my valley lies adjacent to the Park in the Trophy zone, we had lots of hunters looking to kill a wolf. Koda, my ninety-pound Golden Retriever, was forced to be humiliated into wearing an orange vest for those three months.

Koda catches a whiff

Koda, my red dog, enjoys a view

But this year the winds have changed for the wolf. The hunt was suspended just a week before the season was to begin. Environmental groups took Wyoming and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to court over their flawed delisting plan. And on the 23rd of September, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that Wyoming’s plan was not sufficient to support a hunt and the wolves were back on the Endangered Species list again. Money for wolf tags was refunded (at $15 a wolf tag, hunters paid a pittance), and the wolves have a stay for at least another year.

collared hoodoo.jpg

So on this blustery day, I drove down the valley to a trailhead. This fall, Koda doesn’t have to dress up. I’m on an outing with a purpose—to say ‘goodbye’ to my valley for the next few months. When I return, winter will have seriously set in and the deep snows will make it more difficult to get to this place. I prepare a small gift of some herbs and flowers held in a small deer hide bag—an offering that preserves my presence in this place while I’m gone, and honors the spirit of my beloved valley.

It’s a Saturday and the parking area is uncharacteristically full. I usually avoid the weekends, but since I’m leaving in a few days, this is my opportunity. The cars belong to hunters, yet on all my hiking in the valley, and even up this trail, I have never seen another person. People just don’t hike in grizzly bear country; so I still have the trail all to myself.

The first mile follows the stream, and then opens to a large confluence where two drainages meet in an open meadow. The narrow right-hand arroyo is what I want. I move up the dry canyon. To my left, the topography is a gentle slope that divides the two drainages. Yet to my right are the steep rocky cliffs that house a mesa high above. I look for an arch formed of broken slabs of limestone near the top of the bluff.

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I look for the arch that is my marker

That’s my sign to start climbing the steep sides up near the escarpment edge. Once I get to its flanks, I feel my way like a blind woman along the outcroppings. Then, suddenly, a narrow gap appears, barely wide enough to slip sideways through. I crawl upwards about thirty feet, where I emerge onto an unexpected plateau. It’s a trail known only to wildlife. And in front of me are the two house-size boulders, funneling down into the trap. There’s a strange, numinous beauty to this spot that I love so much. I place my offering on the ground, silently intoning my intentions, and then settle onto the rims to enjoy the view. The gully below ascends into a large meadow, eventually bordering wooded hillsides. I can clearly see the ridge that separates this ravine from the one beyond, colored in the gold and reds of the turning aspens.

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Fall colors in October

Time is standing still for me. I have nowhere to go. I snap a few photos and enjoy these last moments before leaving for California. Two figures appear on the ridge. They are dressed in bright orange, and although their origin is not in my view, I know they are coming from an area the locals call ‘Dry Lake’. I look at my watch. They’re deer hunters. I know this because October is open deer season in my valley. That’s the busiest time in this area, with hunters from in and out-of-state looking for a buck to fill their freezer. It’s 2:30 p.m., and a strange time to be hunting. From my vantage point, I haven’t seen any wildlife, and wouldn’t expect to at mid-day. They come over the ridge and appear to be leaving, walking down the drainage. There is no way they can see me, as I’m high up on a rib of rock obscured by trees.

IMG_0648.jpg

Koda and I watch as the two hunters appear over the ridge line

They sit down for a break and I pull out my binoculars. Yes, they are definitely hunters because I see their rifles. They rest for about ten minutes, and then continue on their route towards the parking area.

After they leave, I scramble down the terrace and take an alternate route back to my car. When I arrive back at the parking lot, I see the two hunters are already back too, and they are parked next to me. And I notice two other things: first they are unusually silent. They are not speaking to each other, nor do they look at me. Wyomingites are friendly folks, and hunters and outdoors people enjoy exchanging information and small talk. Yet these two fellows clearly do not want to engage me.

I also observe they are a father/son pair. I rarely see a father hunting with his son, so their mannerisms and facial features imprint in my mind more than they normally would. The young man appears to be about thirteen, yet he is tall and gangly for his age. The father is balding, about fiftyish. It’s three p.m. They silently load up their gear, then drive off.

In fifteen minutes I’m back at my house, packing to leave for California in a few days. By mid-January, I return home to a landscape blanketed with snow. Attached to my door is a business card. It’s from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Senior Special Agent, Office of Law Enforcement.

           “Please give me a call—hoping you can help with some information”

When I call Officer Rippeto, he tells me there was a wolf poaching the day that I was parked at the trailhead.

“The Warden rode up on horseback on Sunday morning. He found the dead wolf by Dry Lake. He figured it was shot on Saturday.”

I asked how he knew I was there that day.

“A Forest Service ranger drove up on Saturday and took down descriptions of all the vehicles parked in the lot. That’s routine. The warden recognized your car and told me where you lived. I’d like to come up and take a statement from you.”

I ask if the wolf was collared. Apparently, the wolf was a yearling and had no collar.  I tell Office Rippeto that I’d snapped some photos from my view spot. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any photos of those hunters. But I do have a time stamp on my pictures, which were taken immediately before they came into view. And I relay my description of them.

EK000094.jpg

Yet the one thing I did not notice was what their vehicle looked like (people in Wyoming always identify others by their vehicle) nor did I check to see if their license plate indicated they were locals. Being that it was general deer hunting season, these two people could have been from anywhere. And deer hunting up here is not a limited tag quota. It’s statewide.

Last I spoke with Officer David Rippeto, he still hadn’t found the wolf poachers. I cannot be certain that this father and son were the culprits, but I suspect they were. Rippeto too was suspicious of their conduct, and the fact that they quit their hunt at an hour when they should be about to begin hunting.

I think about what kind of example that father taught his son. He taught him that poaching was acceptable behavior. And he also gave him the clear message that wolves are not welcome here in Wyoming.

_______________

Update: October 2016. Wolves are still on the Endangered Species list in Wyoming. Wyoming and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife recently brought the case to court. We have not yet heard the decision of the Federal Appeals court.

 Wyoming continues to refuse to acknowledge that listing wolves as predators in 85% of the state is an antiquated and egregious view of wolves, a relic of the 19th century, when predators were exterminated for the benefit of the livestock industry.

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Tracking notes

The other morning, after a nice light new snow, I drove the dirt road.  The elk were out, as always in the early morning, feeding, in a large group of over 700.  As I continued my drive, I came to a fresh track of two wolves that had run down the road.  They weren’t wandering, but directed towards somewhere.  In short order, another wolf came trotting in from the nearby meadows. Then another, and another.  Soon the tracks clearly showed 6 wolves running alongside each other.

Over time six wolves came trotting down the road

Over time six wolves came trotting down the road

Every so often I’d stop the car, get out, and examine the track.  These were the Hoodoos, a pack of stout, large wolves with the alpha tracks measuring around 5″ long x 4″ wide.

Wolf print

They didn’t appear in a hurry or threatened, for they were all side trotting with a stride about 30″. Their tracks sometimes overlapped or meandered.  Occasionally a few of them run off the road, then return at a different location.  These might have been the pups, exploring and meandering more than adults would.

Then a strange thing happened.  It appeared that more and more wolves were ‘returning’ to the road, all traveling in the same direction.  At one point I struggled to tease apart all the tracks and I counted eleven or twelve wolves!  I knew there was no way we had this big a pack in our area this year.  There are two packs around, but they don’t travel together.  I couldn’t figure it out.

I counted around 11 or 12 wolves

I counted around 11 or 12 wolves with all the tracks in the same direction and the same freshness

Then tracks ended by running off the roadside into a field of brush and willows, a haven for a young bull moose newly kicked out on his own this year.  I saw magpies hanging on the fence by the willow’s edge. So this was what all the ruckus of tracks was about!  I realized that these wolves had made a kill in the willows, fed for a while there, then headed off, only to circle back via the road and feed once more.

A few mornings later I walked out into the willows.  I was curious if that young moose had been their victim.  Moose are scarce here, having a hard time making a comeback between diseases, the ’88 fires destroying habitat, the warm summer and winter temperatures, as well as added predators.  Moose suffer heat stress in winter when temperatures are above 23 degrees.  Since early January most of our daytime temps have been above freezing, and many days in the 40’s and 50’s.  Thinking that it’s rare to find elk hanging in dense willow cover these days, I was afraid it was this moose that had been killed.

Hoodoo wolf prowling around

Hoodoo wolf prowling around

Yet the elk had been acting strangely early in the year–I’d seen them alone, in small groups, in tight areas, feeding mid-day, and not in the larger herds I’m used to.  But in the last several weeks, their ‘normal’ patterns have returned–normal for winters here means elk moving in large bunches from 100-700 elk and feeding early morning and late afternoons.  Although elk patterns are mysterious, I’m suspecting that when the elk came down from the Park in late December this year, the wolves were late in following them and were still higher up.  But as soon as the Hoodoos got to work, the elk became the herd animals nature intended.  Unlike many wolf packs in years past that resorted to killing deer, the Hoodoos are experienced hunters and know how to kill elk.

Here's my moose

Here’s my moose

With the help of a Koda sniff, we found the leg of the animal.  Not our moose but an elk, and it looked like a two or three year old from the look of the skin.  On the way back home, I saw that moose that had been hanging out in those willows for weeks on end.  He had moved up the road to a different area.

Sometimes it pays not to jump to conclusions, but instead be patient, and attempt to tease apart the puzzle of wildlife.

Speak for Wolves

I just returned from 2 nights and 2 days of a Speak for Wolves event in Gardiner, MT, the first one of its kind.  The event was a great success, with some very prominent speakers and filmmakers in the field of conservation.

The event at Arch Park.  YNP historic arch in background

The event at Arch Park. YNP historic arch in background

Friday night I saw Bob Landis’ new film ‘She-Wolf’ which is now on sale in the Park.  She-Wolf is the interesting and unique story of wolf 832f , better known as the Lamar Valley’s famous ’06 who was shot and killed in the very first Wyoming wolf hunt.  Bob answered questions at the end of the film.

This story is extremely personal to me as not only had I watched ’06 many times up close and personal in the Lamar Valley, but after her death in late December 2012, the entire Lamar pack (minus the remaining alpha male) spent the winter in my valley.  During that winter of 2013 I had the opportunity to watch the pack behind my house many times as well as track them.  With the death of their alpha female, they seemed at a loss of how to kill elk, even though there were thousands all around them, and they mainly killed deer.  In the spring they all dispersed–which is a typical disruption when pack members are killed.

'06 swims the Lamar river, emerges onto the road right in front of tourists.

’06 swims the Lamar river, emerges onto the road right in front of tourists.

On Saturday there were speakers such as Nathan Varley who runs a wolf watching business in Gardiner with his wife.  He spoke of how these last several years of wolf hunting around the Park boundaries has made his business even harder.  His yearly gross revenue of over 1/2 million dollars brings a lot of business to the Park and surrounding communities. People come from all over the world to see wolves as the best place for viewing them in the wild is Yellowstone.  But some of the viewable packs are gone.  Lamar Valley used to be the premier place for wolf watching, but now has only two wolves that are rare to see.

Louisa Wilcox of Center for Biological Diversity spoke of some of the knotty politics.  Appropriately enough, thunder and lightning cut her talk short.  Public lands ranching and trapping demonstrations–one of the main ways wolves are killed in Montana and Idaho–completed the day’s activities.

Coyote pups

Coyote pups

Saturday night was film night.  Two short films on Wildlife Services (Exposed: USDA’s Secret War on Wildlife) and how they indiscriminately are killing wildlife were shown.  Then Camilla Fox, Director of Project Coyote, presented a film on how Marin County (my old alma mater) ranchers have done away with Wildlife Services and implemented a program of natural protections.  These include guard dogs, better fencing and llamas.  The county has saved over $60 million dollars plus most ranchers have seen either no predation or very little predation by coyotes.  All this and the biggest plus is they are no longer poisoning wildlife.  Instead, the coyotes are doing their job of controlling the rodents around the ranches.

Dr. Robert Crabtree, who has done all the major research in the Park on coyotes, was present for the panel discussion afterwards, as well as George Wuerthner, Western Watersheds Project Oregon Director and author.

Sunday’s event included a wonderful talk and ceremony by Jimmy St. Goddard of the Blackfeet Tribe.  Here’s a short clip of Jimmy giving a prayer in Blackfeet.

Doug Peacock gave a great talk about the plight of the grizzly bear, who the USF&W and the states are just itching to delist in 2015, and how that might impact the numbers of the Great Bear.

All in all it was a great event with talks from dedicated individuals who are working hard to make a difference in our treatment and perception of wildlife and wildlands.

Since I traveled through the Park to and from Gardiner, here are a few of the wildlife shots I took on my journey.

Moose on highway 212 outside the Park

Moose on highway 212 outside the Park

Little Black bear in Yellowstone

Little Black bear in Yellowstone

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Elk lounge on the high school field in Gardiner

Elk lounge on the high school field in Gardiner

Muskrat photo finally!

Muskrat photo finally!

Great Horned baby with mouse

Great Horned baby with mouse

Bison and baby

Elk–the poster child for an elegant chaos

Yesterday down by the river Koda found a large cow elk carcass.  I usually follow the dog when he’s intent on something as he invariably leads me to interesting stuff.  And he kept his promise, for this was no ordinary carcass. This elk had a collar, a VHF tracking collar.  I assumed, rightly so, that this was a collar left over from Arthur Middleton’s 3 year elk field study in my valley.  Just last month I caught an elk on my trail camera by my house wearing a collar.  I contacted Arthur because I was surprised there were still some elk with them.  Apparently some of the collars employed for the study were designed to fall off; but others were going to stay with the elk for life.

I decided the best thing was not to touch the collar, but to contact the game warden.  I knew they’d want the collar back, even if it no longer carried data or was active.  The collars can be refurbished and save the WG&F around $600. But I wasn’t sure if they wanted to check the elk’s health out, with the collar on, before I removed it for them.  Since the carcass was in a fairly easy access location, I did worry that someone would come bye and snatch the collar for themselves as a souvenir.  When I spoke with the warden, he requested that I go back, obtain the collar, and save it for him.

Predated elk with collar.  How the elk died, we don't know.  But she provided a good meal for a lot of predators.

Predated elk with collar. How the elk died, we don’t know. But she provided a good meal for a lot of predators.

I noticed that she only had one ivory.  When she was collared back in around 2008, they took one of her ivories (her eye tooth) to determine her age.  Judging by her teeth, she was an older cow, but once the warden retrieves the collar, they can match it up and determine her exact age at death.  At long last, she’ll get that collar off.  I did feel badly that she had to move around with that collar around her neck all these years.

Arthur Middleton’s study in my valley was commissioned to find out why this migratory elk herd has such a low cow/calf ratio.  He spent three years of fieldwork, and several more writing his thesis.  Since that time, Arthur was awarded a prize/grant to study the other 5 migratory elk herds in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  You can read the controversial results of that study here on my blog, and here on the web.

One of the many interesting findings was the rate of vigilance displayed by elk relative to wolves.  Before the study, everyone was postulating that wolves were responsible for the low calf ratios.  The theory out there was that wolves were pushing the elk hard and therefore stressing them out.  This additional stress led to less foraging, more vigilance, and just less calving success.

About 2000 elk are in the valley in winter.

About 2000 elk are in the valley in winter.  These are the YNP Lamar elk herd.

The results debunked this theory.  First off, there was no more vigilance with the migratory herd than the non-migratory herd that was used for comparison in the study(where wolves are present although not as many; and they had normal cow/calf ratios).  But more interesting was that elk did not show any signs of stress or movement until wolves were within 1 km, and these wolf/elk encounters occurred, on average, once every 9 days.  These factors are important to what Arthur is now stirring up a storm of controversy with.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation helped fund Middleton’s study. But they seem to ignore the results of the study and still blame wolves for all the decline.  Included in the above 80% is the overpopulation of elk on the Northern range present before wolves.  YNP was killing elk for years to help reduce the herd.  One reason why wolves were introduced in 1996.

Just recently, Middleton had an op-ed in the New York Times.  In it, he contends that his results, as well as other studies, challenge the straight forward idea of wolves and trophic cascades.  In other words, that wolves herd the elk sufficiently to allow less browsing on aspens and willows, allowing them to regenerate.  The idea of trophic cascades is no doubt true (apex predators affect whole ecosystems), but Arthur is saying ecosystems have a lot more complexity to them then the simple fix of restoring top predators.

One of the ideas rattling around these days in biology is the Landscape of Fear.  I’m not a biologist, but the whole notion never sat right with me.  Simply put, the theory maintains predators will change the behavior of their prey, through fear, in ways that affects the their movement throughout the landscape, changing their feeding patterns and thus the plant material.  True, but maybe not the whole of it I think.  Ecosystems are varied and complex.  Arthur posted a photo of a wolf den with a herd of elk grazing nearby.  We humans have certain notions of fear-consciousness, yet this might not at all be what’s driving all the movements of wildlife.  As I said in that previous post, I still think nature has more to do with adaptation and awareness, than with so-called ‘fear’.

Recently I took a class with James Halfpenny in the Park.  He was asked about the wolf-coyote relationship.  It has been documented that wolves killed about 50% with the wolf reintroduction, but now their population seems to have recovered.  Coyotes are using the ‘inbetweens’ of the wolf territories to move around.  It didn’t take them long to work out, and remember instinctively, their age-old relationship with their big brothers and how to live with them (and take advantage of their kills).

And if wolves are herding elk from intensive aspen/willow foraging, I have to ask why the pack of six wolves in my valley was slacking on the job.  When the snows got really deep, the elk settled in my front yard and forest, topping every single aspen and willow they could reach.

Wolf wary of infared light

Wolf wary of infared light

 

How to collar a wolf

The spotter plane has been flying very occasionally because either its too windy or snowing. When the spotter flies in January, its because the Wyoming Game and Fish are looking to find wolves.  They need to complete their annual count and do collaring.

Here's how its done although this pix is of cargo.  The wolf would be wrapped in a net.

Here’s how its done although this pix is of cargo. The wolf would be wrapped in a net.

This morning was beautiful.  Four inches of new snow and no wind–perfect conditions to fly and look for wolves against the snow.  I saw the helicopter head up a neighboring drainage and knew they’d found wolves there.  It just so happened that I was on my way to meet a friend in Cody when I saw the copter returning to a trailhead pullout with a sling hanging from it.  The copter hovered while a cadre of Game and Fish employees guided the net to the ground, then carried the cargo to a lowered tailgate of a truck.  I knew what was happening so I turned my vehicle up the dirt road to get a closer look.

Lying on the tailgate was a small sedated wolf.  A female, she was this year’s pup and only about 70 pounds.  Her teeth told the tale as they were white and perfect, but her paws said she’d be growing bigger by the spring.  Usually I keep my camera in the truck, but this morning the elk were in my front yard and I was taking their pictures.

About 2000 elk are in the valley in winter.

About 2000 elk are in the valley in winter. 

So no photos folks, you’ll just have to believe me when I say I touched her fur, and held her foot.  And the truth is I didn’t feel badly about no photos.  Photographing a sedated wolf felt like I would be violating her dignity.

I asked one of the fellows how long before she awoke. “About 1/2 hour till the drug wears off.”  He told me.  “It’s the same drug the vet uses to sedate your dog.”

One person will stay with her till she wakes, then she’ll just have to find her way back to her pack by herself from the parking area–although far in human walking terms, probably no great feat for a wolf, who can travel up to 30 miles in a night.  She can surely scent her way, or howl her way, back to her family.

Not today's wolf but here is an example of collaring.

Not today’s wolf but here is an example of collaring.

I’ve been volunteering for many years now in the Draper lab at the Buffalo Bill Museum of the West.  About six months ago the lab acquired over 100 frozen wolf heads from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.  USF&W managed wolves when they were still listed. They shot wolves for livestock control.  These wolf heads, and some carcasses, were saved for DNA and other scientific purposes.  The lab also is receiving wolves from Yellowstone National Park that died from various causes, usually wolves that killed other wolves.  With this repository of skulls from all over the GYE, the museum will be in a unique position of holding essential DNA information which could help ensure the Greater Yellowstone wolf population has sufficient genetic diversity so as not to go extinct again.

Draper lab Buffalo Bill Museum of the West

Working at the lab, I’ve held and worked on many wolf skulls, but of course all dead wolves. Seeing a living wolf so close up is definitely a thrill.  But I have mixed feelings about collaring and so much interference.  Wolf collaring outside the Park is essential for only two reasons: first to count the population and track them, ensuring that the numbers of wolves do not fall below the critical 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs; and second they take blood in order to make sure enough genetic mixing is taking place, again part of the delisting mandate.  Other than that, these wolves have been studied for over 15 years and now that hunting is taking place outside the Park, the study inside the Park has, I feel, been compromised with too many unnatural variables.

So, my reservations?  The amount of disturbance that wildlife in general is subjected to is constant.  There is general hunting season on ungulates from around September through December.  Collaring of wolves.  Fly over counts of sheep and elk.  Cougar hunting is seven months from September through March. Regulated trapping seasons on fur bearers such as martens, bobcats, and beavers.  Year round trapping on wolves in part of the state, coyotes, raccoons, badgers, rabbits.  Then there’s snowmobile activity in winter and ATV activity in summer.  The human pressures on wildlife never stops, in addition to their predation pressure and food needs.  And this is just around my area.  Many states have year round hunting and trapping regs depending upon the animal.

Putting all my concerns aside, it certainly was a magnificent day–awakening to hundreds of elk in my front yard and getting a close-up look and feel of their predator, the wolf.

Four wolves far away

Four wolves far away

 

 

Wyoming’s wolf hunt hits hard

I’ve been checking the kill data sheets on the Wyoming Game and Fish predator site every day.  The data is divided into zones, with a quota in each except for the ‘predator zone’.  In the Predator area, which constitutes over 85% of Wyoming, a wolf can be killed, by any means, any time of the year.  In the Trophy Area, its October through December.

My zone is zone 2.  We’ve had early snows, which drives the game further down from the high meadows.  It also makes tracking easier.  Wolves follow elk and so do hunters.  The quota in my zone has been 4 wolves total.wolf

With the large quota of 8 wolves last year that dispersed and mostly destroyed the existing pack, there have been few wolves here.  Park wolves moved in this winter, although their pack was hit hard when several of the members moved outside the Park boundary and were killed, among them the Alpha female. Come spring the Lamar pack dispersed, a few had small litters, and although I’d watched a few lone wolves here and there, the wolf watching here, as well as Lamar valley in the Park, was poor.  Summer in general is a time when wolves are tending their pups and not running in packs.  Fall and winter they ‘pack up’.

This wolf, from my valley, was by the road two years ago.  With the hunts you will no longer see wolves so easily

This morning I looked at the Wyoming Game and Fish ‘harvest’ data (I hate that euphemism.  I ‘harvest’ vegetables and fruits; I ‘kill’ animals), and it appears that over the weekend five (5) wolves were killed in my zone–one over the quota even.  I don’t yet know the details, but I might assume they were running together, adults and pups, and all ‘harvested’ by elk hunters working high up with wolf tags in their pockets.

I find the whole wolf hunt, and how its being handled in Wyoming (as well as Montana and Idaho) a sad state of affairs.  The Wyoming Game and Fish wolf site is extremely lean on data and statistics which makes me distrust what their final count for 2013 will be.  They say they will have, at the end of this hunt, a total of 160 wolves.  Yet with 50 wolves killed this year already in the predator zone and as control, these additional 26 wolves for the hunt amounts to approximately 75 wolves harvested. Wyoming’s final data report for 2012 estimated 186 wolves as of December 2012.  Even with new pups, a kill rate of over 75 wolves will be cutting it close to the agreement with USF&W below:

Under the terms of the delisting agreement between Wyoming and USFWS, the state of Wyoming is required to maintain wolves at or above the minimum delisting criteria of ≥100 wolves and ≥10 breeding pairs in WYO, with YNP and WRR (Wind River Reservation) providing the additional buffer of ≥50 wolves and ≥5 breeding pairs necessary to meet the ≥150 wolf and ≥15 breeding pair requirement for the state.

My valley which is directly adjacent to the Lamar Valley, is a rich corridor that allows for genetic exchange.  The Lamar elk herd migrates here in the winter, returning to the Park in the spring.  The herd has been studied for its low cow-calf ratio, but the results of this study are not being used to make management decisions.  The study shows the biggest impact to this herd has been compressed ‘green-up’ reducing feed quality (think climate change and drought), and to a lesser extent, grizzly take on young as the bears food (specifically cutthroat trout) has been reduced.  With zone 2 as one of the largest quotas in the state for wolves, WG&F is trying to eliminate wolves in this area in order to build up the elk herd population–even though their own studies indicate wolves are not the herd’s main problem.

What must be said, that isn’t being said enough, is what is a landscape devoid of its full suite, bereft of predators, lacking that intricate network of fundamental relationships? Wolves operate as a family unit; they have emotions like ours.  There is something magnificent and whole about having an abundance of wildlife, all of the members of one’s ecosystem, present.  The Land itself becomes alive.  That is why I love living here, and not in a ‘wilderness’ of only pretty views.wolf

I end this post with a quote from Joe Hutto.  He spent a year raising a brood of wild turkeys.  Here he reflects upon his youth when he hunted turkeys for food.  I would like to believe that this is what motivates hunters to kill for trophy or sport, killing an animal that you don’t even eat.  I like to think these wolf hunters are attempting, unknowingly, to touch something magnificent, more alive, and more fully conscious.  And possibly one day they might wake up and instead of killers of wolves, they will be advocates.

“I try to recall whether in my young mind, at that moment, I could have imagined, anticipated, or even longed for the irony of the present moment and this strange continuity.  Like an arrow shot high and blind, it seems as though I have traveled very far although my path was peregrine.  It appears, in retrospect, that my trajectory could only have brought me eventually to this singular experience.  I realize now that as a young hunter, my intent was not merely to kill for food this elusive bird, but was rather my clumsy way of reaching toward something that enchanted and mystified me.”

Wolf Watching

Now that wolf hunting is a reality in Wyoming, I’m always loathe to write a post about wolves.  Frankly, I don’t want to give out any information that will help hunters during the fall hunt season.  Last year, the first wolf hunt season, the Wyoming Game and Fish had a quota of eight wolves in my hunt area.  Eight!  There barely were eight wolves here.  The Hoodoo pack had, the year before, driven off most of the other competing packs and were dominating the valley.  So what happened on that hunt last October-December?  Eight wolves were taken, yes, but three of them were from the Lamar Pack in the Park, including the Alpha female of that pack.  During the winter, the entire Lamar Pack, disrupted after loosing their strongest hunter, spent most of their time here, mostly consuming deer, an easy prey. But come spring and mating season, the Pack fragmented, with only three, sometimes four, returning to the Park full time.

A disrupted Lamar Canyon pack in the valley this winter

A disrupted Lamar Canyon pack in the valley this winter

What used to be the best most reliable wolf watching area in the country, the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park, is now quite lean. Its a rare day in the Lamar when tourists can view wolves there.  Only three, sometimes, four, adult wolves are left in the valley, although they’ve produced a small litter of pups.  The remainder of the pack has dispersed.

Here in the valley, some of those Lamar wolves remain this summer, and a few have pups in various locations.  Its unclear at this point how many are here, and what will happen to them in terms of new pack formations, nor how many of these wolves will venture back into the Park come September.

Wyoming Game and Fish has a much lower quota this year and that’s because they are getting dangerously close to their relisting number of 100 wolves outside the park, and 50 wolves inside.  As of this writing 23 wolves have been killed in the predator zone alone.   Taken together with the 67 wolves killed last fall, that’s almost 100 wolves out of about 212 before the hunt outside the Park.  Between wolves that are killed naturally, and wolves that are killed by WG&F as predator control, even with new pup counts the line is getting thin.

wolf

This years’ quota is set for four wolves in my area.  So far, I’ve seen several lone wolves and a few reports of a wolf with a pup.  Once again, this fall could easily decimate and disrupt the wolf population here.

Last week I had a wonderful thrill.  Upon returning from a creek expedition I spied a lone wolf mousing in a field next to over 75 cows with calves.  I watched her for over an hour, deftly reducing the ground squirrel population.  She was incredibly focused on her task and I suspect she would be returning to feed some hungry pups with this small meal.  When she got too close in her endeavor to the cows, a large mama would come over and push her further away.  Otherwise, the cows paid her no mind and went about their business grazing undisturbed.  The good news is that these cows are removed to lower pastures come October when wolves tend to hunt in packs and could easily take down a cow.

Hard to see, but the small dot in the foreground is the wolf mousing amongst the cattle

Hard to see, but the small figure in the foreground is the wolf mousing amongst the cattle

I like wolves; and I like seeing them in the landscape.  They are finally re-inhabiting their old nation where they once roamed freely.  Where there are few problems and livestock conflicts, where the habitat is good, where there is room for genetic exchange, it makes little sense to even hunt wolves in these areas.  The wolves here have self-regulated for a long time.  It’s a tough and short life being a wolf.  They fight and kill for territory, and their territory is defined by how many wolves can actually be sustained.  They also work as a family with a close-knit social order.  Disrupting that order continuously exacerbates problems with livestock.   Given the human social and political climate, I don’t see much change for wolves in the immediate future.