Armed with alarms

  As the prowler approaches, metallic shrieks reverberate across the grassy benchland, and strobe lights pulsate in the black night. The would-be assassin escapes into the forest - on all fours.

The high-tech alarm system, designed by a scientist at the National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colo., is the newest tool in wolf management.

The lights and alarms, housed in PVC pipe, were recently installed at a 4,000-acre ranch just south of Florence, Mont., in the Bitterroot Valley. As elk descended to the winter range here from the rugged Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness last year, wolves followed. Last winter, cattle rancher Tom Ruffatto accidentally caught a radio-collared wolf in a trap set for coyotes. Now he's agreed to take part in the experiment and live among wolves "as long as they don't chomp on our livelihood."

Any radio-collared wolf that wanders within 500 yards of the alarm will set lights pulsating, horns blaring - and wolves running.

"We're looking for the startle response," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Joe Fontaine told the Missoulian. "Scare them and make them move away from the area."

Hank Fischer of Defenders of Wildlife, a nonprofit group that helped finance the experimental system, says the key to wolf reintroduction now is developing ways "to protect livestock and to keep wolves alive."

* Mark Matthews

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