TROY – Carl Martin was working behind a Quonset hut on his property May 7 when his dachshund, Nellie, started barking uncontrollably and his other dog began cowering behind him. When he looked up, he saw a wolf standing at the edge of his land near where the forest begins.
Recounting the incident, Carl’s wife, Roberta Martin, described the dachshund’s personality as fearless, “a fiery little gal that believed she could take on an elephant.”
Nellie took off after the wolf.
“She kept going and going and went over an embankment,” Roberta said, “and there were three more wolves waiting.”
Carl headed for the house, but wasn’t able to get there in time to save the dog.
“He ran back to get his gun,” Roberta said. “He heard her yelp and everything went silent.”
Searching the area on his ATV, Carl was unable to find the wolves or the dog. And though they never saw their dog again, they see the wolves several times a week, according to Roberta. The Martins may have suffered the worst loss of anyone living along Old U.S. Highway 2, but in this small community west of Troy, they are not the only ones to have had an encounter with this pack.
One of Roberta’s neighbors recently found her horse cornered by a wolf. A man who lives on nearby Lime Creek Road was woken up in the night by his dog barking and found a wolf on his porch. Another man hunting for antlers south of U.S. Highway 2 witnessed the pack of four wolves chasing a deer, and according to neighbors who spoke with him, one of the wolves briefly pursued him on his ATV. A biologist called in to investigate howled into the forest, and the wolves promptly howled back.
“We live in a rural area and we know that the animals are here,” Roberta said. “But they have never been so brazen as to come into our yard when we have been out there in the middle of the day.”
“This particular pack doesn’t seem afraid of the humans,” she added. “So I don’t know what the answer is.”
To respond to the incidents, Kent Laudon, a wolf biologist for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, brought a team to the area last week to attempt to locate the pack and haze the wolves to move them away from the neighborhood. The Beacon traveled with the team while they conducted the search.
The issue of wolves, recently removed from the federal Endangered Species List, is among the most emotionally and politically fraught in Montana – attracting attention and animosity in a way other large predators, like lions and bears, don’t. With a hunt scheduled for the fall, some of the focus on wolves may fade as the state reasserts management over the population.
Though rare, incidents like what is happening west of Troy only exacerbate some of the frustrations in affected communities. A man recently shot and killed a wolf attacking his dogs near Hamilton. And Roberta Martin has had several offers from local residents asking her if she would like them to deal with the wolves.
“The community is saying that if (FWP) doesn’t move them, that they are going to go one way or the other,” Roberta said. “We don’t want to do anything illegal, but at the same time, we don’t want our pets or our livestock threatened.”
The prospect of residents shooting, or potentially poisoning, the wolves is what compels Laudon, along with Alan Whitehead, a wolf management technician, and Lynn Evans, a volunteer, to comb the area searching for the pack. Upon learning which U.S. Forest Service roads are open and accessible at the Three Rivers Ranger District office, the FWP team splits up. Coordinating their GPS units and radio channels, Whitehead and Evans begin bushwhacking across a forested area near where the wolf incidents occurred, while Laudon heads toward a Forest Service road where he will eventually meet them.
In Laudon’s northwest Montana district, he has previously dealt with wolves attacking dogs, usually for territorial reasons, or preying on livestock, but he conceded the frequency of sightings and incidents near Troy is somewhat unusual.
“Usually we have these incidents, but they’re isolated,” Laudon said. “People are starting to see them all the time, so of course there is a concern for further problems.”
Based on the descriptions, Laudon believes the pack consists of two adults and two yearlings, though he can’t be sure if it’s a completely new pack, or consists of wolves from the Solomon Mountain pack, whose territory lies to the north.
“Right now, I’m guessing it’s Solomon Mountain,” he said. “It’s probably one of the packs I know the least about.”
Driving the FWP truck along a rutted dirt road, he muses out loud that the wolves may have followed game herds down from the mountains to graze. As temperatures warm, the wolves could follow the herd back away from human populated areas, thus solving the problem. Every so often, he slams on the brakes, craning his neck out the window to examine scat on the road. Wolf scat resembles that of coyotes, except it’s bigger, often containing larger bone chunks.
In his time monitoring wolf populations, Laudon has learned characteristics helpful in finding them. For example, wolves love spending time in meadows, especially if they have pups – and such clearings don’t show up on topographic maps. They also prefer to travel on established trails and roads, which is where Laudon does most of his searching.
Though the road is fairly dry, he crouches near puddles, for signs of tracks. Based on its shape, he decides one interesting print is from a small lion. Reuniting with Whitehead and Evans, who found nothing, the team descends a promising spur trail that leads in the direction of the Martins’ property. But the wet trail reveals no tracks or scat.
“If wolves were running up this, it would be obvious, so cancel that theory” Laudon said.
They decide to comb a different area, with Whitehead and Evans climbing toward Cougar Ridge Road, while Laudon drives it. He has a theory that where roads traveled by wolves curve, the wolves’ path hugs the inside, so he examines those sections for signs. He has also learned that wolves often gather at intersections as a way to “check in” with each other while traveling. He parks the truck and wanders just such an intersection, crouching over a puddle where a perfect paw print is pressed into the mud.
“It’s small, but it looks a little wolfy,” Laudon said. “It looks old.”
He marks the position with GPS and records it in a log. Despite it being a relatively minor sign of wolf presence, it is the most concrete evidence anyone has managed to turn up that day.
Based on the frequency of sightings, the team, at the end of the day, is surprised and disappointed to have found such little sign of wolves. That challenge, however, is partly why Laudon enjoys his work. They will try again the next day, intent on somehow resolving the tension between the people and wolves living here.
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