Wolf count wrapping up
By Mike Koshmrl, Jackson Hole, Wyoming
February 8, 2013
Wyoming biologists have been hard at work collaring and counting wolves in the five weeks since the state’s first regulated hunt of the canines came to a close.
Despite a highly charged wolf hunt this winter — when some famous research wolves were killed — Wyoming biologists say pack numbers are right where they projected they’d be.
The count, while still rough, is anticipated to exceed the state’s wolf recovery goals by about 70 percent, said Mark Bruscino, Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s large carnivore supervisor.
“It looks like it’s going to be very close to what we predicted and said in the public meetings, which is: 170 wolves and 15 breeding pairs,” Bruscino said. “That’s a minimum known number of wolves.”
State officials pledged to maintain at least 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs when federal Endangered Species Act protections were pulled for the canine at the end of September. Wyoming’s plan calls for another 50 wolves and 5 breeding pairs inside of Yellowstone National Park.
Last year’s assessment, conducted before hunting was legal, found 230 wolves outside Yellowstone and another 98 inside the park.
Wolf population assessments are conducted aerially during winter, when packs are visible atop the snowpack. Tracking collars — both GPS and very high frequency, or VHF — help wildlife officials locate the wide-ranging predators.
Typically, packs are followed by air on multiple occasions and counts deemed reliable are averaged. Flights are “about done” for the year, Bruscino said.
“In this winter capture effort, we’ve collared 16 wolves in nine packs,” he said. “There are uncollared packs out there for sure, but we’ve got collars on most.”
In Yellowstone, officials are about halfway done with darting and collaring operations, said Dan Stahler, a wildlife biologist with the Yellowstone Wolf Project. Seven wolves have been collared, and park biologists aim to collar about eight more animals, he said.
Yellowstone biologists, Stahler said, are “still trying to get a good handle” on the park’s population. But he estimated about 70 wolves remain in the park.
This year’s assessment of Yellowstone’s wolves has been complicated by hunters killing collared wolves normally used to locate their packs, Stahler said.
“We’re a pretty well-oiled machine when it comes to catching wolves in Yellowstone,” he said. “But I would say that losing collars and having packs that no longer have collars makes things more difficult.”
Hunters shot the only collared animals from two packs, but one of those packs — the Junction Butte pack — is now trackable once again.
“We were able to get a radio collar into a previously uncollared pack,” Stahler said, referring to the hunter-reduced group. He called collaring another wolf from the pack “a great score for us.”
That pack is part of a winter predation study that was initiated when wolves were first reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995. The gist of the findings, Stahler said, is that wolves on Yellowstone’s northern range mainly prey on elk; about 90 percent of their diet are wapiti. But wolves in the interior of the park subsist mostly on bison in the wintertime.
Two other Yellowstone packs, the Snake River and Beckler pack, remain uncollared, Stahler said.
A natural death two years ago was responsible for the Beckler pack’s lost collar, he said.
Closer to Jackson, collaring efforts will be in high gear over the next two weeks in Grand Teton National Park and the National Elk Refuge.
Wildlife officials on the elk refuge will be attempting to collar two animals from the Pinnacle Peak pack as part of a new research project, refuge biologist Eric Cole said.
“The refuge is very interested in monitoring elk density and distribution patterns because of the potential for diseases,” Cole said. “Measuring wolf effects on elk distribution is one variable of interest.”