By Ann McCreary
The breeding female gray wolf of the Lookout Pack was captured and fitted with a radio collar earlier this summer, allowing biologists and researchers to track the pack’s movements. The Lookout Pack is once again being studied this summer, along with six other gray wolf packs in the state, in a multi-year research project investigating conflicts between wolves and livestock.
Gabe Spence, a Washington State University (WSU) graduate student who is leading the field studies in the Lookout Pack and Teanaway Pack areas, said it appears the Lookout Pack produced pups this spring, but it is not clear how many. “We know for sure there are two adults and some pups,” Spence said this week.
The Wildlife Conflict Research project was funded by the Washington state Legislature and is being conducted by researchers from WSU. The overall goal is to find ways to minimize and mitigate wolf depredations on livestock.
In the Methow Valley the research involves two cattle producers who agreed to place ear tags on calves and GPS radio collars on cows to track their movements while they are out on grazing allotments. The collars help researchers track how cattle intersect with the wolf pack movements.
The ear tags on calves have “mortality sensors” that emit a signal if the calf stops moving, to allow researchers to locate the calf and determine why it died.
The radio collar data on the wolves helps researchers pinpoint where a kill has occurred, and the research team then investigates. “We’re looking at all kills. So far there have been no livestock kills in the Lookout area that we have found,” Spence said. The radio tracking devices on the wolves and cattle indicate that they are occupying the same territory.
“We’re finding no surprises at all” with regard to the hunting habits of the wolves, Spence said. “We’re still in the process so it’s too early to say for sure, but they are eating wild prey,” which is primarily deer. In addition to studying direct conflicts between wolves and cattle, the research is also evaluating the “indirect effects of wolves, like stress” on cattle, Spence said.
Cattle producers say just the presence of wolves near a herd can cause cows to be nervous, change their grazing habits and lose weight. “We are collecting scat samples of cows in areas that intersect with wolves and checking hormone levels,” to determine if the cows are producing hormones related to stress, Spence said. The samples are frozen and sent to a lab at WSU for analysis of the cows’ hormone and nutrition levels.
Researchers try to avoid coming in contact with the wolves, Spence said. “We do sometimes see them but we try not to affect their behavior.” The research team has set up wildlife cameras in the Lookout Pack territory to try to determine how many animals are in the pack. “We need to know how many wolves the amount of predation represents.”
The research project began last summer but the Carlton Complex Fire, which burned through some of the Lookout Pack’s territory and grazing allotments, produced some unexpected variables. Researchers discovered the remains of one wolf pup born last year that appeared to have died as a result of the wildfire.
In addition to the Lookout and Teanaway wolf packs the research is also studying the Wenatchee, Smackout, Diamond and Ruby packs. Gray wolves are protected as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act in the western two-thirds of Washington State, which includes the Methow Valley. They are protected as endangered under state law throughout Washington.