Wolves on the Mind

By Beacon Staff

After a wolf wandered through Kalispell recently, phone calls of other possible sightings began pouring into the local Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks office. Specifically to Kent Laudon’s desk.

Laudon, 48, has been a wolf biologist for FWP’s Region 1 since 2004. A large share of his 22 years studying wildlife has been focused on wolves and their habits, predation and shifts in populations.

Since the wolf sighting in town on Feb. 24, Laudon has been receiving reports from people all over the map, claiming everything from the predator tearing apart garbage cans to tracks being found near houses.

One call came in from someone who claimed to be following a wolf that was running through a neighborhood. The caller told police they were trailing the wild animal but then “the wolf” ran into a yard and a person opened the front door of the house and it went inside.

Several similar situations have emerged since the original sighting, and so far only one report has been deemed accurate outside of town and FWP is actively investigating it, Laudon says.

In many ways, the sightings represent the current polarized environment regarding wolves, where perception is grappling with reality.

Is the wolf coming into town symbolic of the predator’s overpopulation, a common belief?

“No,” Laudon says. “Of course if there was a wolf in town that was acting oddly, we would be proactive about that. In this case, this wolf looked like he was just running for his life.”

Should people be afraid of being attacked by wolves, either in town or in the wild?

“Never say never, but you want to be realistic about the real odds of everything,” Laudon says, later adding: “Wolves are not that scary. I’d be very comfortable walking in on a kill or a den site by myself, unarmed, not even with pepper spray. Not a big deal. I would not do that with a grizzly bear.”

Laudon acknowledged he has to carefully walk through a political minefield when discussing wolves.

“It’s a delicate thing. If I say the wrong thing,” he says before pausing in conversation. “This thing gets a life of its own.”

Laudon is scheduled to speak at the Museum at Central School on March 26 for the winter lecture series sponsored by Glacier National Park Associates. He’s uncertain about what he will discuss, but will likely touch on the history of the animal’s recovery in Northwest Montana; the animal’s current status in Glacier National Park; and the science behind tracking population trends. The wolf hunt is a topic that’s hard to avoid and he will likely have to talk about it at some point, he said.

Around the same time Laudon was running around responding to reported sightings, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the delisting of Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolves from the federal endangered species list. On March 14, the panel of judges agreed that Congress did not violate the Constitution when it shielded the delisting from court review last year.

The ruling cited a U.S. Supreme Court case, indicating that this could be the final court decision involving the contentious issue. It also means the debate now shifts back to individual state FWP offices where the management of wolves remains a sensitive subject.

“We’re not really used to dealing with this,” Laudon says. “It’s a unique phenomenon.”

Wolves have been one of the most controversial subjects in modern wildlife management and have fractured the outdoor community. Some hunters say the predator is decimating big game herds. Ranchers fear for their livestock. Advocates say wolves deserve to roam in the wild and be protected.

Then there’s the role of biologists, like Laudon, who work in the middle of the maelstrom.

Laudon remembers almost a decade ago there were only a few noticeable traces from the anti-wolf camp, including the bumper sticker that reads, “Smoke a Pack A Day” with a wolf in the crosshairs.

“It is interesting that when I first came here in 2004, it used to be the case that there weren’t many bumper stickers like that,” Laudon says. “I think maybe you’d see one a year. It was pretty rare. Then that changed and you could drive across town and count them. That’s a big difference. I think that matched with what was going on.”

The second wolf hunt in recent history took place this year. The quota of 220 in Montana was not reached despite the FWP Commission extending the season almost two months. As a way to manage numbers, FWP hoped to reduce the state’s population to 425 animals with the hunting season, but only 165 wolves were killed, or 75 percent of the quota. FWP officials reported recently that the wolf population grew this year, and now there are an estimated 653 animals across the state.

Montana still aims to reduce the number of wolves and will examine additional ways to do so, FWP Director Joe Maurier said in a statement.

Maurier said those options could include allowing hunters to kill more than one wolf; allowing trapping; increasing the quota and extending the hunting season; or using electronic calls.

Laudon believes hunting wolves will be difficult until people learn the unique ways to track the animal. Also, there’s the question of incentive. Will a large number of hunters put forth the effort to track something that doesn’t offer meat like big game?

When it comes to discussing the effects wolves could be having on big game populations, Laudon pauses. He has the scientific findings from years of studying in the field. He describes the situation as complex, with many contributing factors. Three of the last five winters can be deemed “severe,” meaning winter kill has affected deer populations especially. Other predators, like mountain lions, also affect big game herds, Laudon says.

“Wolves are part of that, no doubt,” he says. “I think it is hard (to get a definitive answer). It’s an easy guess, but that’s all it is, is a guess. We’re in the business of trying not to guess.”

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