Wolf and Wildlife Studies
   
Background Of The Fishtrap Pack

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.

Fishtrap pack country

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.

   

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