Wolves have existed in the area where I live for a good
number of years. The wolf history of my area consists of at least
two established packs. The first was called the Thompson River pack
which began in about 1995 when the alpha female from the Murphy Lake pack
near Eureka, MT, traveled south and began her own pack with a male wolf
she met in the Thompson River area. This information is known because
she was radio collared by the USFWS and they followed her movements.
In fact, she had made several excursions southward from Murphy Lake during
the two years prior to 1995. Each trip lasted a little longer than
the previous one until she finally stayed and began her own pack.
The new Thompson River pack remained intact until the
summer of 1998 at which time USFWS biologists searched for the remaining
members of the pack that apparently were shot by local residents.
Because of her radio collar, the biologists knew that at least the alpha
female was alive and she was traveling in and out of her home range.
Trap lines were set to try and capture and relocate her but she was never
found. In January of 2001, the second pack made their presence officially
known by killing a llama. They were called the Fishtrap pack.
Although most of the local residents knew that wolves were occasionally
present, this livestock depredation made it clear that a wolf pack was
nearby and was likely to stay. This is how I met my friend Bill who
was the owner of the llama that was killed. I have been studying
the Fishtrap pack ever since.
Bill owned a total of three llamas and allowed them to
roam through the nearby national forest rather than keep them in a corral
or pasture. In February 2001, the wolves killed a second llama and
Bill put the third llama in a pasture next to his home. Bill has
taken full responsibility for the death of his llamas and does not blame
the wolves for what happened. Nevertheless, the wolves’ actions made
local residents nervous because they owned livestock as well. In
the mean time, I tracked these animals throughout the winter of 2001 and
found several of their kill sites which consisted of deer and elk.
During my winter studies, I also found several routes that the wolves were
using to access the various drainage systems within their territory as
they apparently followed their prey items.
In the summer of 2001, students from the wolf classes
that I taught for San Francisco State University and for U. C. Santa Barbara,
helped to verify the winter data and collected data on the wolves’ summer
activities. For example, we found two of the pack’s rendezvous sites.
These are temporary areas where instead of bringing food back to the pups,
i.e., at a den site, the pups are moved to the food. The pack may
be at each site for perhaps two to three weeks before moving on to another one
which they will do throughout the summer. These areas provide not
only food for the pack but act as training areas in which the pups learn
future social skills, hunting techniques, and in general become functioning
members of the pack. By fall, the pups will have matriculated into
the pack's social hierarchy just in time for the pack's nomadic part of
the year which can last into late spring. During this time, the
pack roams their territory to hunt and to “defend” their territorial limits.
By late winter, however, mating has occurred and during the following 65
day gestation period the pack will have located and settled into a denning
area where a new litter of pups will be born sometime in the spring.
During the summer of 2001, the students and myself conducted nightly surveys
and we found that the wolves often split up the pups into two groups with
one group usually at the current rendezvous site and the other group several
miles away. Over the next twelve months, the Fishtrap pack underwent
a dramatic change in its membership with some individuals leaving the group
and others dying.
By the winter of 2002, the Fishtrap pack began to change,
spawned by the death of a radio collared male. The signal from his
radio collar indicated that he had been motionless for some time and most
likely dead. When the wolves’ radio collars are motionless for over
four hours they begin emitting a different type of signal. This indicates
that something is not right. His body was found by USFWS biologists
who investigated why this animal died. A necropsy was performed and
revealed a puncture wound through the wolf’s chest and into his lungs.
Apparently he had been gored by the antlers of a prey item while hunting.
A wolf’s life can be very dangerous and full of unpredictable risks.
Deer, moose, elk, and other items on the menu list of wolves often fight
back - and win. It takes numerous attempts before a wolf pack can
bring down its prey so most encounters end with the wolves still hungry.
When a key member of a wolf pack is killed, one possible
response by the pack is to split apart. This may have happened with
the Fishtrap pack. After the male's death, I began finding two different
groups of the Fishtrap pack on a consistent basis all the way through the
following summer. The USFWS felt that perhaps the pack was still
one group during this time period, however, there was no definitive proof
one way or the other. One of the Fishtrap adults had extremely large
paws which were over five inches in length. When I found this wolf’s
prints I knew which “branch” of the Fishtrap pack I was following.
This was fortunate because none of them were radio collared. The
collared female, however, was with the other black wolves like herself
and was found on a regular basis by USFWS biologists. So between
myself and USFWS, the Fishtrap pack was continually monitored.
In the summer of 2002, the students in the wolf classes
and myself found both groups of the Fishtrap pack which were close by each
other but still in different places. This changed by the fall, however,
when I no longer saw the tracks of the large-footed wolf and when USFWS
biologists began finding the radio collared female’s signals on the west
side the Cabinet Mountains. Up to this point, the Fishtrap pack's
known territory was on the east side of this mountain range. In fact,
throughout the winter of 2003, the collared female and her pack traveled
across the Cabinet Mountains and back again on a regular basis. They
did this over snow-covered peaks which from my Umwelt was quite an accomplishment. It seemed that the pack had either expanded
its territory to an almost unmanageable size or there was some other reason
important to the wolves that impelled them to continually cross a mountain
range in the dead of winter. By spring there was some indication
as to what may have been happening. To find out, please read the summary
of results for Project HOWL and the territory
information for the Fishtrap pack.