By Ann McCreary

A female gray wolf in the Lookout Pack has been captured and fitted with a radio collar, enabling biologists and researchers to monitor the wolf’s activity.

State wildlife officials have made several attempts to collar one of the Lookout Pack wolves after confirming last December that there were five wolves traveling together in the Lookout Pack territory in the mountains southwest of Twisp.

The wolves had eluded capture until May 29, when two biologists with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) found a yearling female in a leg-hold trap, one of several traps set in ongoing efforts to collar a Lookout Pack member.

The wolf was immobilized using a jab stick, said Scott Becker, WDFW wolf biologist.

After checking the wolf’s condition, taking blood and DNA samples, and fitting the wolf with ear tags and a radio collar, the wolf was placed in a shady spot until she recovered from the immobilization drug, Becker said.

The 70-pound female “was in good shape for a yearling animal,” he said. Her collar sends radio signals and transmits her location by GPS. To help manage Washington’s wolf population, state wildlife officials want to collar animals in each of the state’s 13 confirmed wolf packs.

Having a radio-collared wolf in the Lookout Pack also provides information needed by researchers who have launched a study of wolf/livestock conflict in the Methow Valley and other areas of Washington with wolf packs.

 The study was authorized and funded last year by the state Legislature, which allocated $600,000 for a scientific investigation led by Washington State University researchers into wolf depredations on cattle and non-lethal interventions to reduce conflicts.

Because of the presence of the Lookout Pack and its proximity to cattle, the Methow Valley is one of the field study sites.

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Tagging livestock

In addition to monitoring wolves, researchers are also monitoring cattle that graze in territory occupied by wolves.

Two weeks ago, a four-person WSU research team initiated the study in the valley by placing ear tags on 70 calves and GPS collars on seven heifers. Two local cattle producers are working with the research team, said Zoe Hanley, a doctoral student who is leading the field research in the Methow Valley.

“We looked for producers that we thought would have Forest Service [grazing] allotments that would overlap with wolf movements,” Hanley said. “The point is to track wolf movements and determine if they’re interacting with cattle.”

The ear tags on the calves will emit a “mortality signal” if a calf stops moving to alert researchers, who will then locate the calf to determine the cause of death. So far the team has discovered a couple instances of “dropped ear tags,” after tags have come unfastened and fallen off, Hanley said.

By monitoring both predator and prey, the study intends to provide accurate information about wolf-caused deaths in cattle, as well as the indirect effects of wolves on cattle.

“The goal of the project is to see what the wolves are really doing on the ground,” Hanley said.

“We are trying to look at it from the wolves’ perspective, what is their natural prey use and … if they do take cattle in the area and the mechanism behind that — why they would switch to cattle,” Hanley said. Biologists consider wolves’ primary prey to be deer, she said.

The collars on the heifers store location information tracked by GPS, which will be examined at the end of the season and compared to data on the collared wolf’s movements “to see where there are overlaps with wolves,” Hanley said.

“We are also collecting cow poop,” Hanley added, “to look at the stress levels on cows.” Examining the fecal matter can reveal the presence of “hormones like cortisol that would indicate stress.”

Cattle ranchers say the mere presence of wolves can cause stress in cattle resulting in weight loss, pregnancy loss and avoidance of grazing areas.

One of the cattle growers participating in the Methow Valley study is utilizing a range rider provided by the state to protect his herd, Hanley said. The researchers will also evaluate the effect of this type of non-lethal intervention on preventing conflicts, she said.

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Similar studies

The research team will remain in the Methow Valley until the end of October, Hanley said. “We will stay out as long as cows are on the allotment.”  The research is funded through 2015.

In addition to the study of Lookout Pack wolves, teams are conducting similar studies of the Teanaway Pack and the Diamond Pack in eastern Washington, Hanley said.

Biologists monitoring the Lookout Pack believe the pack includes a male and female and three offspring, including the recently collared yearling. Biologists say the Lookout Pack female probably produced a litter this spring. If there are pups, the pack is likely to remain near the den site until the pups are older.

“Having a collared animal will help us figure that out,” said Scott Fitkin, a WDFW wildlife biologist. “This is the first time in four years we will have a functioning collar on a Lookout wolf.”

Confirmed in 2008 as Washington’s first gray wolf pack since the 1930s, the Lookout Pack included at least four adults or yearlings and six pups in the summer of 2008.

Biologists captured and radio-collared the breeding male and female in July 2008. Other pack members, including the six pups, were filmed by trail cameras that summer.

By April 2009, poaching had reduced the pack from 10 animals to only the breeding pair and one surviving yearling. The female produced a litter of at least four pups in 2009 and all seven animals survived into the spring of 2010, according to information from WDFW.

The alpha female disappeared in May 2010, less than three weeks after she was believed to have given birth to a litter. She was known to be pregnant in April and last seen at a den site on May 12. Her collar stopped transmitting and extensive searches found no evidence of her. The alpha male was last seen in June 2011.

Gray wolves are protected as a federally endangered species in the western two-thirds of Washington state, including the Methow Valley. They are protected under state law throughout Washington. Under a state wolf management plan, wolves will be removed from the state’s endangered species list when 15 successful breeding pairs, distributed throughout the state, are documented for three consecutive years.