Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Catching Wyoming wolves: Hard even on a good day

17 hours ago  • 

JACKSON -- The helicopter maneuvered through trees before settling on hip-deep snow in a small meadow.

Biologists Ken Mills and Bob Trebelcock jumped out, sank into the snow and started their trudge straight up the hill. They had to move fast.

A wolf had been darted and possibly tranquilized. Before it knocked out, it ran into the woods. It would be their job to find it.

Splitting up, wearing orange flight suits and carrying wolf collaring kits, Mills ran one direction and Trebelcock the other. They’d need to first locate tracks in the fresh snow and then follow them.
The situation wasn’t ideal. Most captures are in open meadows. But, catching and monitoring wolves isn’t easy, especially the last wary few.

Even on the best of days it requires a helicopter, crew and fixed-wing airplane. Then packs need to be in the open. If one of the wolves in a pack has a collar, biologists can usually find the group. If not, it’s like looking for needles in a haystack.

If they found the wolf, it would be one of the final captures of the first season the Wyoming Game and Fish Department managed wolves. The agency can now monitor more than a quarter of wolves in Wyoming with radio collars. Officials say the data is critical as agencies and the public adjust to the first species in Wyoming to lose federal protection and then be hunted.

Monitoring after the feds

Until Sept. 30, Wyoming never really managed wolves. Wolves were essentially killed to extinction in the state by the early 1900s, and when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service brought them back in 1995, the agency assumed complete management control.

In September, after years of lawsuits, plans and meetings, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced delisting in Wyoming. More than a dozen groups have sued either on their own or together, though none sought an injunction to stop last fall's hunting season, and Wyoming biologists have continued monitoring wolves.

The delisting agreement requires Wyoming to keep 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs outside of Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Indian Reservation. It expects Yellowstone and the reservation will keep about 50 wolves and five breeding pairs.

But now, instead of all wolves falling under one agency, wolves in Wyoming alone face five managers: Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, the National Elk Refuge, the Wind River Reservation and the Game and Fish Department.

Each agency has its own goals and guidelines.

Grand Teton National Park, for example, monitors wolves for movement, food choice, distribution and reproduction, said Jackie Skaggs, spokeswoman for the park.

The National Elk Refuge is working on similar studies and also how their presence on the refuge affects elk behavior, according refuge biologist Eric Cole.

Game and Fish Department biologists are focused mostly on monitoring for numbers to ensure they meet the delisting requirements.

“That’s our primary focus in the short term, and we will have to do that each and every year,” said Mark Bruscino, Game and Fish’s large carnivore section supervisor.

“But radio collars also give us data on movement, habitat use, den site selection, are useful in resolving conflicts with wolves.”

In January 2012, officials estimated about 192 wolves lived in northwest Wyoming in the trophy game areas. The goal before hunting season was to end 2012 with about 170 wolves and 15 breeding pairs in that area. Preliminary data shows numbers will be close, and final estimates will be out by April -- in time to plan 2013’s hunting season.

To catch a wolf

Out of Wyoming’s 30 to 35 documented packs, the Pacific Creek Pack near Jackson has proved one of the most elusive. With 13 members, it’s large and smart, said Ken Mills, large-carnivore biologist with the Game and Fish Department.

The department captures most of its wolves with a net gun. A “mugger,” as they’re called, shoots a net over a wolf from a helicopter, jumps out, pins the wolf’s neck to the ground, puts a collar on it and takes samples. The wolves are never tranquilized and the procedure takes about 10 minutes. It’s more efficient than darting a wolf, transporting it to a handling station and then flying it back into the woods. But it’s also more expensive.

A wolf in the Pacific Creek Pack rolled out of its net in January and ran away. Biologists tried several more times with tranquilizer darts only to come up empty.

Montana and Idaho, now three years into managing their wolves, are developing systems for monitoring that don’t involve collars. Wyoming may go that direction one day, but for now, biologists view radio collars, which give precise locations, as the best option, Mills said.

“The stakes are so high for us to be absolutely sure we have an accurate count,” he said.
Very high frequency, or VHF collars, last about four years, and the collar and process by air cost about $2,500 per wolf, Mills said.

Collaring amounts to about a third of the state’s $300,000 yearly wolf management budget. Much of the rest goes to livestock damage payments and has never been entirely used.

Without collars, biologists must find wolves by flying over thousands of acres of mountainside scanning for the animals, finding tracks on the ground or following reports from people.
Even with collars, biologists still sometimes find themselves looking for tracks.

Mills and fellow large-carnivore biologist Bob Trebelcock followed paw prints through deep snow in mid-February. An uncollared wolf had joined with a collared wolf from another pack, likely to mate and start a pack of its own. A fixed-wing airplane found the signal from the collared wolf, then called in the helicopter to dart the one without a collar.

The wolves’ tracks wove through the trees, first together and then separate. Mills followed them for nearly an hour before deciding the dart had either not injected the anesthesia or the anesthesia simply did not affect the wolf.

The airplane found the wolves more than five miles away. Both were on the move through heavy trees.

Mills and Trebelcock returned to the helicopter and flew back to their trucks to regroup while the plane left to find other wolves. Some of the more elusive wolves may have to wait until next year for collars.