In late August, a landowner northwest of Hamilton shot and killed two four-month-old wolf pups he noticed near his sheep. State biologists suspected they'd been orphaned five weeks before when an adult female was killed while eating a freshly killed lamb on the same spot. Less than a week after the two pups were shot, a third was struck by a car on Highway 93 south of Darby.
That's just a sampling of the wolf stories to emerge from the Bitterroot Valley over the past few months. And now the frequency of sightings and conflicts near residential areas has the Ravalli County Commission snarling back at wolves.
The commissioners have been compiling reports from locals for nearly two months with the intent of presenting their findings to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Commissioner Suzy Foss has so far led the charge, going so far as to submit a personal letter to FWP stating that her community is "under great duress" from wolves.
"Families no longer allow their children to play outside unattended and never in the evening hours," Foss wrote. "Pets are disappearing from front porches."
FWP wolf management specialist Liz Bradley says she understands the concerns voiced by hunters, ranchers and private citizens in Ravalli County. What's more, the latest population numbers she's compiled reveal a high density of wolves in the Bitterroot watershed—an estimated 14 packs with 80 to 100 wolves.
Bradley says she recognizes a very real problem for folks living and working in the wildland-urban interface. "We are having some increased conflicts, especially on the west side of the valley. There's a lot of people that live in the Bitterroot...People are living pretty close to wildlife."
Bradley says she isn't sure of the reasons behind the rise in wolf activity. It could be that some wolves are "moving into marginal habitat, trying to squeeze in and not surviving." She expects this fall's wolf hunt to reduce the number of wolves living in close proximity to people, pets and livestock.
Still, Bradley believes fear isn't necessarily the most constructive response. Wolves are "new for a lot of people," she says, and it's smart for people to be cautious with children and pets. But state officials "don't want people to live in fear all the time...Part of the process of learning to live with any wildlife species is learning a bit about the species itself."