IN MONTANA, the return of wolves has been a controversial issue. As in the past, the last thing ranchers want to see on the landscape is a wolf. But apparently, the wolves have more to fear than ranchers.
According to a report in the Missoulian, two wolves that had been collared in the past by wildife managers have been recently killed - by mountain lions. Biologists know mountain lions are the cause of the wolves' demise by the puncture wounds in their skulls.
Two other wolves met a similar demise last year and another was killed by a mountain lion in 2009. All of the killings were in the Bitterroot Mountains and four of the five killed wolves were wearing radio collars when killed.
There are numerous documented cases of large predators killing other large predators but according to biologist Liz Bradley, the number of wolf and lion encounters being discovered in the western Montana is unusual.
“I haven’t heard of it happening anywhere else,” Bradley said. “It’s pretty interesting ..."
In many of the cases there was no nearby carcass the wolf and mountain lion would have been competing for so it is difficult to say what led to the confrontation, Bradley said.
Bradley said that because most of the killed wolves were collared, the attacks are having an impact on biologists' efforts to track the wolves.
Bradley estimated that there were between 60 and 70 adult wolves in the entire Bitterroot area that run in an estimated 14 distinct packs. She expects that number to increase as pups join the pack this summer. Until the lion killings, Bradley had a collared wolf in seven of those packs. Currently she is down to collared wolves in just four of the packs.
Wolves were hunted to extinction in Montana around the turn of the last century but wildlife managers began returning wolves to the state during the mid-1990s. The decision to return wolves to Montana was highly controversial and remains so. Since their reintroduction, a common cause for wolf deaths is for them to be killed by ranchers who find them harassing livestock.
Since being reintroduced, wolves again have thrived in Montana and currently there are are estimated 700 wolves in the state. Several years ago, hunters were allowed to being hunting the wolves on a limited basis to help control the numbers. The hope is to bring the state's wolf population back down to around 400.