Wolf Attacks Near Fortine Confound Researchers

By Beacon Staff

In the first two weeks of September, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks specialists killed three wolves in the Murphy Lake pack for attacking cattle on private land. Over the previous month, the wolves killed seven calves and injured three, according to FWP. In early August, the pack killed three calves and one adult cow on public land near Stryker. When FWP specialists killed the first two of the three wolves, it found them chasing cattle and shot them from a helicopter.

What is odd about the recent behavior of the Murphy Lake pack, among the oldest in northwest Montana, according to FWP Wolf Management Specialist Kent Laudon, is that its wolves have barely ever demonstrated a taste for cattle-killing in the roughly 17 years that the agency has monitored them.

“They kind of became a problem this year out of nowhere,” Laudon said. “It’s surprising all of us.”

The Murphy Lake pack was last documented attacking livestock in 1997 when the wolves killed several sheep. But that year, Laudon said, an explanation was obvious. The winter of 1996-1997 was brutal, with deep, heavy snows and bitterly cold temperatures that killed off a large segment of the whitetail deer population. As a result, there were fewer fawns the following summer for the wolves to eat.

“If we have a drop in the prey base wolves turn to livestock,” Laudon said. “Wolves get in trouble.”

But this most recent winter, while cold and wet, was not as severe as the 1996-1997 winter, and Laudon surmised the weather had “probably minimal, if any, impact on the whitetail deer population.”

Another typical reason why a pack might change its behavior to start attacking livestock has to do with the lead, or alpha wolf, growing old and leading the other wolves to avoid difficult-to-catch deer in favor of easier cattle and sheep. But one of the wolves from the Murphy Lake pack that specialists killed was the alpha female. Though she was 8 years old, which is fairly old for a wolf in northwest Montana, she was in excellent health, Laudon said.

So that theory on the why the pack has begun attacking livestock can be ruled out. All of which leaves FWP specialists stumped for an explanation behind the recent behavior of the Murphy Lake pack.

“There’s probably lots of days that they’re walking through cattle and they don’t bother them,” Laudon said. “This year, for some reason, it’s different.”

Before FWP killed three, the Murphy Lake pack had roughly six adult wolves, and Laudon believes the pack currently has three pups. Two of the three remaining adults now wear radio collars, which should make monitoring their behavior and tracking their movement much easier – though it may not provide any easy answers.

Murphy Lake isn’t the only pack attacking livestock. A newly formed wolf pack, believed to have been in existence for about a year, attacked four cattle near Lost Prairie between Aug. 20 and Sept. 5. New packs form when young wolves leave an established pack, a tendency called “dispersal,” and pair off with another wolf who did the same thing. If the two are in an unoccupied territory, the wolves stay put and form their own new pack.

“They are an established pack, we just haven’t named them yet,” Laudon said. “They likely reproduced last year and the year before.”

FWP specialists killed two wolves and collared a third in the new pack to monitor its location should further cattle attacks occur.

The wolf population and the number of packs in northwest Montana is clearly on the rise. In 2007, FWP recorded 35 livestock and dog kills by wolves. As a result, the agency lethally removed 19 wolves. But as long as the populations of humans, wolves and livestock continue to increase in this part of the state, more encounters seem inevitable – particularly after a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicated last week that the federal government will back away from its attempt to remove gray wolves from the endangered species list in the Northern Rockies.

Laudon hopes the public will continue to report wolf incidents to FWP (751-4586), since the more wolves they can collar, the better specialists can understand the often vexing behavior of wolves.

“We are dependent upon and appreciative of public reporting,” he said. “When people see wolves or wolf signs, we are definitely interested in hearing about it.”