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Counting Wolves: With Increase In Packs, Determining Actual Population Becomes More Difficult
Posted on Friday, January 14, 2011 (PST)

Wanted: Social arbiter and diplomat in one of the most emotionally charged arenas of wildlife management. Must be a detective and data cruncher with an uncanny ability to trap live gray wolves.


That’s pretty much the job description for Kent Laudon, northwest Montana’s wolf management specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.


In addition to working with landowners, hunters and wolf haters and lovers alike, Laudon’s main task is trying to keep tabs on the region’s wolf population, their numbers, their territories and their impacts on the landscape.


“Everybody cares about the numbers, a whole lot,” said Laudon, who freely concedes that getting those numbers has become more difficult, even impossible, as the region’s wolf population has steadily expanded.


When he started on the job in 2004, 11 packs had been identified in the region with a total of just under 50 wolves, and Laudon is confident those minimum counts closely represented the actual population on the landscape.


By the end of 2009, the minimum counts were 41 packs with 176 wolves, and Laudon says there are considerably more actual numbers on the landscape. Using past data indicating average pack size of seven wolves, he has calculated that the actual population may exceed the minimum counts by as much as 44 percent.


“At one point, we almost knew them all by name, but now it’s like this big gigantic puzzle,” Laudon said. “That minimum count for a long time was a reasonable way to do it. When there’s only a handful of packs it’s pretty easy to keep track of it. But when you have 41 packs over 15,000 square miles, it’s a lot different.”


As with bears and mountain lions that are spread across a region covered with closed-canopy forests, at some point there is no way for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to keep running, accurate tallies on wolves, said Laudon, who now concentrates on identifying packs and is spread too thin to track the number of wolves in those  packs.


“There’s not many of us who have a whole region, and I have a whole region,” he said. “But I still have this delusion that somehow I’ll catch up.”


But for a species that is protected as fully endangered under the Endangered Species Act, wolf population numbers have been extremely important in Montana’s efforts to have the species delisted. The state has repeatedly argued that recovery goals, in terms of wolf numbers, have been easily exceeded for years.


And because population estimates will continue to be important, Laudon is working with statisticians at the University of Montana and Rick Mace, a state research biologist who has done considerable population work on grizzly bears, to develop “patch occupancy” population models.


“We can’t continue on forever counting wolves the way we do now,” he said.


Jim Williams, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks regional wildlife manager, remarked that Laudon obviously has one of the most difficult jobs in the entire agency simply because of the fireworks that surround wolves, but the most difficult part of the job is the monitoring work.


“He’s very good at trapping wolves. It takes a lot of time, and it takes an intimate knowledge of their territory and behaviors,” Williams said. “He’s racked up some very large numbers of live captures with no mortalities ... If I had to replace him now it would be a big hill to climb.”


Laudon describes himself as a “minimalist” trapper who will usually set just six traps in a line covering several miles, and never more than a dozen. Wolves, more than most animals, prefer traveling roads and trails, so that’s were his lines are concentrated. He uses scent lures at the traps, including wolf urine and scat, simulating a “territorial invasion.”


The purpose of trapping wolves, of course, is to get a tracking collar in the pack. That allows Laudon to identify territories and get aerial observations for counting individuals.


But to find a pack and trap a wolf takes time and most importantly, evidence from the field. Laudon relies heavily on reports from the public to locate wolves.


He recalls being perplexed at one point that wolves had yet to establish themselves in the Swan Valley because of its thick deer population.


But in 2006, the reports started coming in, with consistencies.


“What I look at is clusters of reports,” he said. “Clusters speak for themselves. You start seeing consistencies that start to jump out.”


Reports are posted on a map, but locating animals on the ground is another matter. Laudon spent time scouting areas for wolf sign in the Swan, but had no luck until 2007, when a spring bear hunter reported that he had been “barked at” in the woods, a possible indication that the man had gotten too close to a den. Laudon went to the same area and found wolf scat and tracks.


He trapped and collared the alpha female the next day and a male the following day. The next year, he identified another pack in the Swan with similar results.


The field season has Laudon and his volunteer assistants living out of a truck and tents for extended periods.


“If I’m out working by Troy, I can’t run back and forth to Kalispell, so we’re just camped out in the woods,” he said, but those periods in the field are sprinkled with memorable sights and experiences.


“If I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t do this,” he said.

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