By Jim Stanford on March 13, 2012
Two weeks after a federal wildlife manager said he planned to kill them, wolves are still roaming the south end of Jackson Hole near residential areas and ranches.
Mike Jimenez, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said there are just two wolves — one white and one black, possibly a mating pair. The predators remain comfortable on the periphery of the Indian Trails, Indian Springs and Cottonwood Park neighborhoods and even south Wilson, near Fall Creek Road, he said.
Because the wolves often are in these areas, Jimenez has been unable to fly in a helicopter and shoot them with darts.
“It’s just not a place we can do anything,” he said. There have been no reports of wolves harassing pets, people or livestock since an Indian Trails homeowner posted a video Feb. 23 of wolves crossing his backyard, Jimenez said.
Jimenez has been tracking the wolves from the ground and by airplane. The animals have ranged from the southern end of the valley, near the South Park elk feedground, across Highway 22 to the north and as far west as Wilson. Their behavior is consistent with wolves establishing a home territory, he said.
“We know where they are, but they’re in small pockets at the far end of a field, or in someone’s backyard, and that’s not an appropriate spot” to capture and euthanize them, he said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service needs a vast, open area of public land, preferably, to hunt the wolves by helicopter, Jimenez said. It’s unsafe to fly near houses and power lines, and even if a rancher or other landowner grants permission for a mission on their property, the wolves will run as soon as the chopper approaches, he said. Setting traps in these areas could catch dogs.
Although they can cover long distances, the wolves have been roaming less remote areas. “These guys are really habituated to people,” he said.
The white wolf is 4 to 5 years old, while the black one is 2 or 3. Both are wearing radio collars, but only the black wolf’s is transmitting a signal. Although Jimenez said he does not know for sure the sex of the predators, he is concerned they are going to den come early April. Usually when a pair of wolves strikes out on their own, they are mates intent on starting a new pack.
The wolves are not part of the Pinnacle Pack that has been roaming the National Elk Refuge this winter, he said.
Fish and Wildlife Service has been monitoring the pair for months. Even before a photograph of the wolves in Indian Trails was published in January, the agency received a complaint of the wolves chasing cattle, Jimenez said. He would not identify the rancher who made the complaint, saying they are protected by federal privacy law.
Jimenez is tracking the wolves two or three times a week, and if he were to find them in an appropriate place for an aerial hunt, “We react very quickly,” he said.
There is ample game in the Snake River bottom for the wolves to eat. Besides herds of elk, Jimenez counted 37 moose between Wilson and South Park last week. It’s still possible, if the wolves are not mating, that they will leave come spring once the game migrates to the surrounding forest, Jimenez said. “That’d be wonderful,” he said.
But if the wolves den and the game leaves, the predators likely will feed on livestock and become more defensive of their home territory, Jimenez said.
The veteran biologist, who has been involved with wolf management since 1986, received sharp criticism from wildlife lovers for his decision to kill the wolves instead of relocating them. Responding to the outcry, Jimenez said it’s unfair to ask that wildlife managers “make wildlife fit into these domesticated situations.”
There are larger questions at play. With game seeking refuge in residential subdivisions, predators expanding south from Yellowstone are bound to follow. “This is going to be an ongoing problem,” he said. “How do you make room for wolves when we’ve screwed up the habitat? People don’t want to take responsibility or any kind of accountability for that.”
He has a valid point. Residents often say they moved here for the wildlife, which means they are inhabiting what used to be habitat. “People’s enjoyment of wildlife or wild places is something that causes this conflict,” Jimenez said.
(Photo by Tim McClure)