Wolf History, Conservation, Ecology and Behavior

Wolfology Item # 500
(May 1986)

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Wolves Across the Border
Jim Robbins

After an absence of fifty years, wolves have returned to Glacier National Park in northern Montana. Jim Robbins provides an overview of the questions their return raise: How will the wolf affect the ecosystem? Other endangered species, like the caribou? How will livestock growers and hunters respond? The answers may take time, as research on the Glacier wolves has only just begun.
After thirteen puzzling years of trying to answer one question about wolves, biologist Robert Ream's luck has changed. He now has one answer and, in typical scientific fashion, a whole list of new questions.
The original question was, Why didn't wolves cross the border between Canada and western United States, particularly in the protected wilds of Montana's Glacier National Park? The region contains large herds of deer, elk, and moose -- favorite prey of the wolf. A half century ago and earlier, wolves lived there successfully, and ecological conditions had not changed significantly since then. Why, then, did the wolves stay away?
The question was answered unexpectedly last November when a pack of twelve wolves -- named the Magic Pack -- moved south from Alberta to Glacier National Park. It was the first pack to take up residence in the western United States since the 1930s. There is also a pack of wolves roaming the east side of the park, and a lone male on the west side.
The wolves appear to have settled into their new habitat. They are making regular kills and are eating well. At least one pack, perhaps two, are expected to den this spring, and biologists believe the inchoate population may double.
Now Ream is confronted with a host of new questions: Will the pack grow and divide? And what, after a fifty-year absence, will be the effect of wolves on the ecosystem? "The western national parks have been without major predators for a long time. They have an abundance of ungulates -- moose, elk, white-tailed and mule deer. We're going to find out just what impact the wolf has on those animals," Reams notes.
Clifford Martinka, supervisory biologist at Glacier National Park for nineteen years, says, "In reviewing the history of the park, I think this is the biggest thing that has happened here since the creation of the park itself."
As the wolf and its prey adjust to each other, there may be, Martinka adds, some ecological chaos among wildlife in the park, for the wolf as a predator can have profound effects on population levels in the short term and on the evolution of some species in the long term....
The wolf's reapparance has also begun to fan back to life the long-dead embers of human controversy. The economies of Montana and Idaho are based largely on agricultural and resource industries. The presence of the wolf could throw an unexpected wrench into the currently troubled, sputtering operation of these industries. To make matters worse, the wolf appears on the scene in the midst of a vitriolic debate between ranchers and state governments over management of another predator -- the grizzly bear.
Compounding the problem, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf recovery team members, is a flaw in the Endangered Specis Act. Under the act, no wolf -- even individuals that kill livestock -- can be killed. This has led the director of Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to bow his agency completely out of wolf recovery until the control problem is solved....
In 1973 -- the year the northern Rocky Mountain wolf received endangered status -- Ream began to compile sightings of wolves, some of which he believed to be spurious -- coyotes or dogs mistaken for wolves. Still, reliable sightings continued, many from the border region, and Ream and his students scoured the North Fork of the Flathead River, on the west side of the park. Even though breeding populations had vanished, lone wolves were sighted occasionally in Montana. Human howling comes in handy for this kind of survey, for wolves usually return even a rough approximation of a howl. For several years, however, the howls of researchers went unanswered.
Then in 1979, Joe Smith, who was working for Ream, trapped and radio-collared a lone female wolf near Kishnena Creek, a remote drainage in the extreme northwestern corner of the park. Kishnena, as she was called, apparently then took up and mated with a black wolf that had only three toes on one foot. They denned in Canada, a rifle shot from the border, and produced a litter of seven pups in 1982. Kishnena and the black wolf were though to be dispersers from Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies, some 150 miles to the north....
Kishnena's seven pups at first took up residency in British Columbia, and were probably the progenitors of the Magic Pack, so named because it seemed to be impossible to locate. Those seven had a second generation of pups in 1984, then a third in 1985, bringing the total to between fifteen and twenty. Last fall, however, perhaps because of large-scale logging, oil exploration and hunting in Canada, where wolves are not a protected species, the Magic Pack moved down into the 1,600-square-mile park....
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recovery plan for the northern Rocky Mountain wolf calls for a return of the animal to three areas -- Glacier, Yellowstone, and the Franch Church/River of No Return Wilderness Area in central Idaho -- before it will be taken off the endangered species list. A recovered population, according to the plan, is ten pairs of breeding wolves for each region, which, if the average pack is five, including one mating pair in each pack, means a total of about 150 wolves in the Rockies.
Zone management was pioneered as a tool to manage the Minnesota and Wisconsin wolf populations and is predicated on the premise that some parts of the wolf's original range, such as agricultural areas, are now undesirable. The wolf recovery plan divides habitat into three categories. Zone one is an area of 3,000 contiguous square miles, with an excellent prey base, with less than 10 percent private land, and less than 20 percent subject to livestock grazing -- a sanctuary like Glacier National Park and the adjacent wildlands. Zone one wolves are fully protected, and management activities are subordinate to the wolf. Zone two is a buffer zone, a remote public land with good wolf potential, which surrounds a zone one. Problem animals could be trapped and moved by a government agent. Zone three has poor recovery potential and possibly substantial conflict. Offending wolves would be removed from these areas.
Livestock operators are not thrilled about the return of an old nemesis, natural or otherwise. Even with a zone system, the industry expects problems. "They don't understand boundaries, they don't understand zones," said Stuart Doggett of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. "You may talk about zone three, but it's not as if you can tell Mr. Wolf, 'Here's your boundary, please don't go any farther, we have cattle here.' He doesn't respect or understand that."
Livestock interests think the wolf should be downlisted from an endangered to a threatened species to allow for more flexible management. "If the wolf was not on the endangered species list, I think we could protect ourselves," said Mons Teigen, director of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, a group that was formed a century ago around the nucleus of perceived wolf predation....Teigen believes labyrinthine federal endangered species regulations may lead a few ranchers to control wolves with the three-S method, "Shoot, shovel, and shut up," he said. "Maybe the system has something to offer -- I don't know."....
In Minnesota the problem was eased by downlisting the wolf from an endangered to a threatened species, a move that allows wolves to be destroyed. Ream says that such a move in the Rockies would be a grave error. "Downlisting at this time would be challenged because we only have fifteen or twenty wolves. Philosophically, and biologically, downlisting doesn't make sense, and I would be opposed."
While a zone concept attempts to address the concern of livestock operators, little can be done to assuage hunters. In Minnesota, some hunters formed a vocal antiwolf group and even issued bumper stickers that read "Preserve Our Deer -- Shoot a Wolf." In Montana some residents of the North Fork of the Flathead River have expressed concern over predation on ungulate populations, but hunters in the area are not yet concerned. On the contrary, Jim Richard, a board member and former executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, a sportsmen's group, said the organization welcomes the return of the predator. "We passed a resolution supporting wolf recovery," Richard said. "We think the wolf will provide for natural, healthy populations. Big game hunting will be improved. I don't think we'll have to shorten or curtail hunting season for lack of game."
Wolf biologist L. David Mech has argued that wolves do not compete with humans for game animals....Recent research in Alaska and Canada, however, indicates that once wolves take firm hold in Glacier, they could have a big impact on elk, moose, and deer populations....In Alaska, according to Bob Stephenson, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks, research shows that a healthy wolf population can kill from 10 to 30 percent of an ungulate population, when at its early summer peak. Wolf predation, especially in conjunction with a hard winter, can raise the mortality rate above the rate of replacement....
With the help of radio transmitters they have placed on the Magic Pack wolves, biologists can locate the animals and follow them on foot or skis. By analyzing scats and kill sites, they can determine what the wolves are eating. Although the study is in its infancy, several things have been learned....
The animals make a kill every two or three days, taking a grown white-tailed deer or the equivalent biomass in the form of a different species, such as elk....Collecting data on kills has been difficult. "The utilization of the carcasses has almost been more than 100 percent," said Mike Fairchild, a researcher who has examined many of the kills. "They're eating all the meat and cracking bones to get to the marrow. With a pack of twelve wolves they're engulfing almost everything. Oftentimes we find only a few pieces of hide and not even much skeletal remains...."
While studies of the wolves' range are just beginning, a lone male, Sage, seems to be covering a great deal of ground, with an estimated home range of 2,000 square miles. Sage is believed to be from a 1982 litter, but he is definitely no longer a member of the pack. The Magic Pack has a home range of 500 to 600 square miles....Home ranges vary greatly among wolves, reportedly from 36 square miles for two wolves to 5,000 square miles for a pack of ten in Alaska....
Because the wolf's reproductive rate is relatively high -- a female has from four to seven pups per year -- the Glacier population could grow rapidly....
The presence of wolves in Glacier has given rise to some acute philosophical questions at the National Park Service. Bighorn sheep herds in the Glacier region have been substantially reduced by human encroachment and the park population is, according to Martinka, artificially low. Losses to the gene pool could be critical. "The philosophical question is," he said, "do you want a naturally occurring predator to be preying on a species to the extent it causes them to become extinct?"
What effect might the wolf have on two endangered species -- the woodland caribou and the grizzly bear -- in northwestern Montana? Only an estimated twenty-five caribou, including five reproducing females, inhabit northern Idaho, the southern edge of their boreal forest habitat. Any loss of caribou could be critical to recovery efforts. Wolves might compete with grizzly bears for carrion, and wolves may even take a grizzly cub. But most wolf experts agree that while wolves and grizzly bears do interact occasionally, they do not pose a threat to each other....
Despite potential problems, Glacier National Park is probably the best place for the wolf's reappearance in the West. Thousands of square miles of wilderness adjoin the park....
The big question is, Can man and wolf, with so troubled a relationship in the past, coexist in harmony or, at least, under an uneasy truce? Have we learned enough in the past fifty years? The patience and understanding of those who must live near the wolf will surely be tried.