Montana wolves can't find safe habitat

  Two members of a pioneering wolf pack on Montana's Rocky Mountain Front were recently moved to Glacier National Park after they were blamed for killing four calves this spring.


Two adults and two yearlings were allowed to remain, at least for now. But because of a political stalemate between state and federal wildlife officials, the future for troublesome wolves seems grim.


The six-member Sawtooth Pack is the fifth pack in Montana and the first successful pack east of the Continental Divide in 50 years. Its den is on a ranch near Augusta.


The yearling wolves are blamed for killing two calves outright, as well as badly injuring others by panicking cattle which trampled calves under their hooves.


Federal biologist Jim Till said he hopes the April 20 relocation to a cattle-free national park will break the young wolves of their cow-chasing habits. The alpha, or breeding, female of the remaining Sawtooth Pack is pregnant and due to have a second litter of pups in coming weeks, Till said.


As in past years, Glacier accepted the problematic wolves. But park officials are showing reservations. The park already has two large, naturally occurring packs, one with 14 members, and the other 18.


Glacier National Park is the only place in Montana where problem wolves have been relocated, said acting park superintendent Pete Peterson. "In the absence of substantive progress toward the identification of alternative release sites, it is not likely that Glacier National Park would approve further requests for relocations."


It is federal policy to give troublesome wolves a second chance, relocating them when they have killed stock.


The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, however, has balked at relocating wolves.


Federal wolf biologist Joe Fontaine said if he can't relocate wolves in Glacier, he may have to order the next problem wolf destroyed. Zoos are saturated with wolves since they breed well in captivity, he said.


Even when problem wolves are moved, they face rough going.


In September 1989, an adult male, an adult female and two pups were released in Glacier after being suspected of killing stock. The female abandoned the pups, which promptly starved. She went on to form another pack near Missoula, but was later shot by a poacher. The adult male, injured in initial trapping, was later destroyed by officials.


Then, in April 1991, three other pups were released in Glacier. They all scattered. One was shot by a poacher, another was recaptured after killing stock again, and the third was shot by a rancher.


Fontaine said he has been frustrated in his attempts to locate alternative release sites beyond Glacier. But Bob Martinka, chief of field operations for Montana's wildlife agency, says the federal strategy of relocating problem wolves is unproven.


"We may just be moving the problem, not solving it," he said. In the long run, that will damage public support for wolf recovery, he argues. With wolves flourishing on their own in Montana - the population grows at 20 percent a year - Martinka says it's unnecessary to move problem wolves around.


Wolf recovery in northwest Montana is occurring naturally and therefore is substantially different from wolf recovery in Yellowstone National Park and Idaho. In Yellowstone, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans on releasing wolves - but only those with no record of killing livestock.


Till is now following both the released pair in Glacier and the Sawtooth Pack by radio collar. That way he'll know if they leave the park or get into trouble with ranchers again.


* Ben Long