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Are the wolves back at Bass Creek?

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For the third year in a row, a pair of wolves appear to have turned up in the Bitterroot Valley along Bass Creek near Stevensville.

Rancher Tom Ruffatto says he recently saw a large gray male on his ranch just west of the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. A deer hunter on his family’s sprawling 4,000-acre ranch reported spotting the smaller female.

Neither of the wolves were collared, Ruffatto says, “so who knows where they came from.” A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist investigated the wolf sightings and visited with neighboring landowners, but he was unable to confirm the presence of wolves, says FWS biologist Ed Bangs.

“We get along with the bears and the lions and we can get along with the wolves too, as long as they don’t chomp on our livelihood,” says Ruffatto. Although the wolves were seen only a half-mile from his cattle, Ruffatto said he’s not concerned about their presence.

“They don’t bother us this time of year, since there aren’t any calves now,” Ruffatto says. “The real test will be next spring if they have some pups and they stay down low after the cows have calved.”

That was the big test this last spring when a different pair of wolves denned and gave birth to eight pups. Although the pack had dined on deer and elk for months, the adults struggled to feed the pups last spring after elk followed the disappearing snow into the mountains, leaving the puppy-sitting wolves behind. Federal biologists successfully hazed the wolves away from Ruffatto’s cattle for two months, but eventually the alpha pair killed three calves on a neighboring ranch.

Last spring’s Bass Creek pack was trapped and moved to an enclosure in Idaho, where three of the pups died of parvovirus and the alpha male was accidentally killed by biologists trying to treat a wound. This week, federal biologists planned to relocate the rest of the pack to the South Fork of the Flathead near the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

In Bass Creek, the value of good habitat is more than doubled by tolerant humans like the Ruffatto family. Even the visiting deer hunter who saw the female wolf had a good attitude, Tom Ruffatto says. “He thought it was pretty neat to see that wolf.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service, however, believes the Bitterroot Valley is a high-risk location for wolves to set up shop. If the agency confirms the presence of a breeding pair, it may preemptively relocate them to a less risky place. “But for now we’ll just wait and see,” Bangs says. “We’re keeping our options open.”

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