Sunday, September 14, 2014

Wild Montana Wolves

Watched a wild wolf last week. In contrast to what you read in letters-to-the-editor around here, he looked something less than fearsome. His eyes weren't glowing red, there was a definite lack of blood dripping from his canines, and he wasn't standing over a dead animal and gloating. No evidence of blood lust whatsoever. In fact, he looked downright defenseless.

Wild Montana wolf (c) John Ashley
Wild wolf mousing near Polebridge
Solid black, the wolf wandered slowly around a freshly cut hayfield, up near Polebridge, on a sunny afternoon. The heat seemed to be getting to him as he half-heartedly stalked mice in the short stubble. He was just far enough from the gravel road to feel unconcerned by the occasional passing truck, but well within rifle range so he probably won’t make it to winter.

This black wolf was just about 10 miles south of where I laid hands on a different young wolf many years ago, just a stone's throw across the Canadian border.

In the summer of 1987, I was a young wildlife biology student living in the North Fork while working on a white-tailed deer study. On weekends I also tagged along with the Wolf Ecology Project biologists to document the “Magic Pack,” a pair of wolves who moved south into Glacier Park, met, and raised a family.

That morning in late June – my birthday – three of us crossed into Canada to check a baited trap line that Mike, the wolf biologist, had set along a gravel road on the previous evening. The hidden traps were foam-padded and heat-treated to weaken them, leaving them just strong enough to hold onto the wolf’s leg without injury. The trap itself was attached to a 20’ chain with a large grapple hook on the other end.

This technique allowed a captured wolf a degree of mobility. Once caught it would head into the forest, dragging the chain along until the grapple hook caught on a tree. The wolf would then be hidden from the road, and it would have enough freedom to move into the shade. 

Parking our truck and checking the third trap location, we followed the grapple drag marks into the woods and discovered a medium-sized, gray-black wolf laying in the deep shade. She was a young non-breeder from the Magic Pack, already wearing a radio collar, so all we needed to do was sedate her, take measurements and check for any injuries before releasing her.

Mike prepared the jab stick – a long pole tipped with a hypodermic needle filed with sedative – then slowly crept up to the wolf and jabbed her in the left hindquarters. She jumped to her feet from his “attack” but soon settled back down as the sedative began to do its job. Mike marked the time, and we waited five minutes.

“Find a forked branch to hold her down with,” Mike told me. Say what?

Mike had calculated a small amount of sedative to minimize her down time, though by four minutes she was laying completely prone. So armed with nothing more than a questionable, four-foot long, dried-out old forked branch, I slowly tiptoed towards this wild wolf who had just been trapped, cornered and attacked by a similar-looking man.

Just as my branch touched her neck, the wolf sprang to her feet and lunged – but not at me. After all she’d been through, this "fearsome" predator ran away from me, dragging the chain through the forest until the hook caught up on the next pile of wood.

I looked back at Mike, who was bent over with surprise and stifled laughter. He quickly prepared a small amount of additional sedative in a second needle and jabbed her again, and finally we were able to take our measurements.

Glacier Park Magic Pack wolf (c) John Ashley
Sedated, female Magic Pack wolf in summer of 1987
Of course, I’d never held a wolf in my hands before. She left lasting impressions, but not for the reasons I'd read about. She was small, not much bigger than my golden retriever. And in mid-summer her coat was wispy thin – she was battling heat by losing hair. But most impressive of all, she lunged away from me when she had every reason to defend herself instead.

I saw her once more, my birthday wolf, three months later.

She was lying in a dusty pool of dried blood in the back of a battered old pickup. One of the Canadian locals saw her walking in the woods, spied the radio collar, and decided to shoot her (legal in Canada) just for spite. He drove her down to the border station to brag and show off her carcass to the biologists. We thanked him for letting us take measurements, but I mostly bit my tongue.

I realized that what I’d read in the newspapers – written mostly by foaming-at-the-mouth "hunters" who have never actually seen a real wolf – was somewhat less than accurate. Their angry words certainly didn't jibe with my on-the-ground observations, from that summer or in the 27 years since.

Yes, wolves survive by killing other animals. In this part of the world, they eat mostly white-tailed deer in winter, and deer and small mammals in summer. They face starvation every day, and because it’s more efficient they tend to prey on the old and sick – removing the weakest genetics and making the surviving deer herd stronger.

Hunters also kill other animals. I know a few old-timers who hunt just for the meat, and I'm fine with that. But most of today’s well-fed hunters – many experiencing the ills of obesity – kill just for fun. It’s called “sport” when the other side is unarmed. Hunters always look for the biggest deer to kill, thus removing the healthiest genes and leaving the herd weaker – exactly the opposite of natural predation. And of course, a percentage of them proceed to parade the dead carcasses around town on their trucks for several days, a show of male machismo.

I used to be a hunter, and I've shot my share of deer. But that was back in the days when most hunters were conservationists, and back when we honored the ethics of fair chase. Those days appear to be over. From everything I've seen in the woods and at game-check stations over all these years, it’s pretty obvious which animals are brimming with blood lust – and it’s not our wild Montana wolves.