A wolf pack that has been among Jackson Hole’s most visible and well-known for the last seven years is still calling a precarious place home: the hillsides and river bottoms right around hundreds of Spring Gulch cattle.
The Pinnacle Peak Pack, which likely produced a double litter this spring and numbered as many as 18 animals, has not left the area west of Highway 26/89/191 this week. Two Walton Ranch cattle were maimed or killed by wolves in the last two weeks, and a federal wildlife agent is posted on the property trying to reduce the pack size and break the pattern of livestock depredation.
“When I get reports from my guy, he says they’re in the trees above the ranch,” U.S. Department of Agriculture-Wildlife Services Wyoming Director Mike Foster said Friday. “They seem to be hanging out there on a regular basis. They don’t really leave the area, and they aren’t going back and forth.
“They seem to have localized,” Foster said.
Five tracking collars from the Pinnacle Peak Pack, which formed in 2009 and dens on the National Elk Refuge, have been detected around the narrow agricultural valley that runs between East and West Gros Ventre buttes. No cattle have been attacked since the early morning of Sept. 15, but dating to spring at least nine Spring Gulch cattle have been confirmed wolf-killed.
Federal wildlife officials have decided not to disclose the number of wolves that are authorized to be killed or that have already been destroyed.
The lethal authorization, Foster said, “is fluid.”
Wolves are protected by the Endangered Species Act in Wyoming and are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Wildlife Services takes action on behalf of Fish and Wildlife.
Tyler Abbott, Fish and Wildlife’s deputy field supervisor for Wyoming, also declined to disclose the number of Pinnacle Peak Pack wolves that have been or could be killed.
“That is an ongoing decision-making process,” Abbott said.
Nonlethal techniques, he said, will be used in conjunction with killing wolves, which reportedly has been a ground-based operation that is using a combination of trapping and shooting.
“We’ve got well over a dozen wolves on private land,” Abbott said. “They’re not leaving and they’re right there in close proximity to the livestock, so it’s a tough situation.”
As recently as late June, aerial assessments found as many as 11 pups in the Pinnacle Peak Pack. The highest number of wolves counted on the year, 18, was the most ever for the pack, National Elk Refuge biologist Eric Cole said.
Cole, who has kept tabs on the Pinnacle Peak Pack for seven years, speculated on what might have triggered the wolves’ sudden predilection for beef. Until this year, they have stayed away from livestock.
“The unusually large number of wolves in the pack may have predisposed them to this sort of behavior this year,” Cole said. “And their typical summer area in the Granite Creek drainage had a major wildfire [the Cliff Creek Fire], which may have changed elk distribution.”
Next week a Natural Resources Defense Council employee plans to meet with Wildlife Services in the Spring Gulch area to surround pastured cattle with nonlethal “turbo fladry” — electrified line fitted with thin flags that blow in the wind.
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s wildlife program coordinator, Chris Colligan, who commutes daily down Spring Gulch Road, is one person yearning for the Pinnacle Peak Pack to find its way back to the Elk Refuge.
“Watching this unfold this summer, I was very hopeful that the pack would remain,” Colligan said, “especially that the adults and the alphas would not be removed, because that pack has been spending the majority of the time on the refuge and are playing an important role there.”
The last time there was canine-bovine conflict in Spring Gulch was 2013, when the Lower Gros Ventre Pack was the cow-killing culprit. The offending wolves, then being managed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, were cut down in number from 13 to two. Annual monitoring reports show the Lower Gros Ventre Pack has since grown back to five animals.