26/05/2024

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Lone wolf trekked across southwest Montana into Pryor Mountains before deadly decision

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Lone wolf trekked across southwest Montana into Pryor Mountains before deadly decision

In 2022 a male wolf that was captured and fitted with a GPS collar south of Dillon decided to take a long hike through some of Montana’s most spectacular wild country.

Traveling east it trotted across the Madison, Gallatin and Absaroka mountain ranges in southwest Montana. He visited Yellowstone National Park, one of the densest wolf populations in the lower 48 states, before climbing over the Beartooth Mountains — the highest in the state. Still searching, the wolf crossed the Clarks Fork Yellowstone River valley and wandered into the Pryor Mountains.

If the wolf had hitchhiked a ride in an automobile, the distance covered is close to 300 miles. But those miles don’t reflect the elevation gains and losses of climbing up and over the mountain ranges. They also don’t tally the rivers that course through the landscape, including the Madison, Gallatin, Yellowstone and Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone.

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Unfortunately, we only know all of this because the wolf made a decision that proved fatal and highlights the challenges of living with large predators. On Feb. 10, the wolf was shot north of Lovell, Wyoming, by Wildlife Services for killing livestock. It had lived in the Pryors about six months.

The 4- to 5-year old canine was not known to have previously killed livestock. No necropsy is planned.







Gray wolf

Gray wolf populations in Montana are estimated at around 1,100 animals spread mainly across the western third of the state. This half black wolf was photographed in Yellowstone National Park in 2003.




Pack

The male wolf, a member of the Antone pack, was first collared in 2020 in the Gravelly Mountains by a Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks crew conducting a livestock conflict mitigation study. At the time, the gray-coated wolf was estimated at 1 to 2 years old, was in good physical condition and had a normal weight. The average for males is about 90 pounds.

The Antone pack consists of five to six individuals that roam across about 225 square miles, according to Morgan Jacobsen, Communications and Education Program manager for FWP in Bozeman.

Travel

Although 300 miles is a normal dispersal distance for wolves, Jacobsen said, other wolves have been known to travel twice as far. Yellowstone wolves were documented walking as far south as Colorado, including a male and female that birthed six pups in 2021.

“Some of the farthest dispersals we’ve seen include wolves that have traveled between the Bob Marshall to Boise; from the Paradise Valley to Colorado; and wolves coming from Oregon and Canada, and vice versa,” Jacobsen said.

Wolves leave their packs for several reasons, including to find a mate, to start their own pack and in search of new territory and food resources. Some wolves leave after the death of their mate. Other wolves have been known to make lengthy 2,400-mile roundtrips before returning to their home territory.







Pryor Mountains

The Pryor Mountains include land managed by three federal agencies: the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and National Park Service.




New land

By late last summer the Antone pack wolf had wandered into the Pryor Mountains, a large parcel of rugged and diverse public land along the Wyoming-Montana border. The lowlands are desert-like, with sagebrush and juniper scattered amid rocky outcrops. From this dry landscape the mountains rise abruptly, climbing to a peak elevation of more than 8,700 feet. Temperatures can be toasty in the lowlands and require a jacket by the time a traveler reaches the top. The mountains are scarred by steep, deep canyons dotted with caves. The uplands feature flower-filled meadows and waist-high grasses.

Although devoid of wolves, the Pryors are home to predators that include black bears, coyotes and mountain lions. Other wildlife includes mule deer, bighorn sheep, grouse and wild horses.

About 75,000 acres of the Pryor Mountains is managed by the Custer Gallatin National Forest. Adjacent to the forest is 92,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management property. These adjoin the 120,000-acre Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, managed by the National Park Service. A portion of the BLM land contains the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range, made famous in Ginger Kathrens’ 1990 films documenting a white stallion named Cloud.

The mountains also border the Crow Indian Reservation to the east. The Hitting the Rock Mountains or Arrowheads, as the Crow call them, have long been used for vision quests with portions of the landscape home to mythic little people.







Wolf print

Gray wolves are much larger than coyotes with tracks nearly as large as a human hand.




Alone

From around April 2022 until it was shot in February near Crooked Creek for killing livestock, the Antone wolf reportedly explored southwest Montana and the Pryor Mountains like a tourist on summer vacation.

“We didn’t have any reports of him being seen in the Pryor Mountains, but I think he might have been seen when he was on the Crow Reservation around Pryor,” said Red Lodge FWP wildlife biologist Shawn Stewart in an email.

“There were no reported livestock conflicts in Montana, and the wolf was still on the north side of the Pryors in early January,” he added.

Neither the BLM nor the Forest Service received any reports of the wolf roaming the Pryor Mountains. If anyone visiting the range heard a howl or saw the gray ghost, they’ve kept it largely to themselves.

The wolf moved south into Wyoming near Crooked Creek just a few days before killing two goats and a lamb on two Big Horn County ranches, according to FWP.

Michael Burrell, acting director for Wildlife Services in Cody, Wyoming, said there are occasional confirmed wolf sightings in the Bighorn Mountains farther south, “but specifically in this area where this wolf was found, I would consider a wolf sighting rare.”

Stewart said there was a rumor of wolves passing through the Pryor Mountains a couple of years ago, but it was never confirmed.







Water crossing

Wolves are capable of traveling long distances, including treks up to 600 miles and roundtrips more than 2,000 miles. This wolf was photographed in Yellowstone in 2010 crossing Alum Creek.




Zone

In Wyoming, outside of a designated trophy management region surrounding Yellowstone National Park in the northwestern corner of the state, wolves are considered a predator and can be killed without a license or with any limit as to how many can be killed. In Montana, all wolf hunting and trapping is regulated by FWP, although they can be shot in the act of killing livestock.

A total of 107 wolf mortalities were documented statewide in Wyoming in 2021, according to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s annual report. Sixty-two were killed in the Wolf Trophy Game Management Area, 38 in the rest of the state where wolves are designated predatory animals, six in Yellowstone National Park, and one on the Wind River Reservation.

“Conflict control mortalities” in Wyoming in 2021 included 15 from agency-directed lethal control actions, one taken under the authority of a lethal take permit, and one taken for defense of private property.

Wolves were identified in 12 cattle and 21 sheep kills in Wyoming’s predator zone in 2021. In comparison, wolves killed 38 cattle and 32 sheep in the trophy area.

A bill working its way through the Wyoming Legislature this session would create a fund to compensate livestock owners for wolf kills in the predator zone. The initial allocation for the fund is proposed at $300,000. A similar program already exists in the trophy zone.

The chance that another wolf may one day wander onto public lands in the Pryor Mountains seems good considering wolves already occupy the landscape along the Beartooth Front near Red Lodge, roughly 40 miles away. Living in such an isolated habitat as the Pryors without running into trouble with livestock, however, poses an additional hurdle for wolves that may one day attempt to occupy the region.

Ironically, if the ranchers hadn’t contacted Wildlife Services to dispatch the collared canine, the Antone pack wolf’s wide-ranging trek may have gone unnoticed.

Swan valley Connections, a nonprofit in Montana, captured this grey wolf on one of the organization’s trail cameras. The video was shared on Facebook with the accompanying message: “Gray wolf territories are dynamic and shift throughout the year. While pups are young and bound to dens or rendezvous sites, the wolf pack shares the pup-rearing responsibilities, including food provisioning and tending to the pups. Because of this, wolf summer ranges are smaller than their winter ranges. And while we have the densest population of wolves in the state here in northwest Montana, we rarely see them on camera for very long. These canines are incredibly smart and ever since hunting of the species began in Montana, they (understandably) don’t trust unnatural objects like our trail cameras on trees.”



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