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Lookout Pack dwindles in size

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By Ann McCreary
Methow Valley News

Feb 9 - The Lookout Mountain wolf pack is down to 2-3 wolves, and wildlife officials are trying to determine whether there is a breeding female among them.

Biologists doggedly keeping an eye on the Methow Valley gray wolves

The Lookout Mountain gray wolf pack has diminished to two or three wolves, and wildlife officials are trying to determine whether there is a breeding female among them.

An interagency team of biologists has been monitoring wolves since they were discovered in the Lookout Mountain area more than two years ago, and subsequently confirmed through DNA testing to be gray wolves. The pack has fluctuated in size, numbering as many as 10 in the spring of 2008.

Through tracking and remote cameras, biologists have been trying to determine how many wolves remain. A key question is whether one of the remaining wolves is a female that could reproduce and keep the pack alive, said Scott Fitkin, wildlife biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

February is the breeding season for wolves, and pups are born in late April, Fitkin said. Trackers for the wolf monitoring team are looking for signs that one of the wolves might be in estrus, which would be indicated by blood in the urine.

“There are a lot of unknowns. We are hoping we’ll have a functional pack this spring,” said Fitkin.

The fate of the alpha female is unknown, but “circumstances around her disappearance indicate that somebody killed her,” Fitkin said.

“We stopped seeing her at exactly the same time we stopped being able to receive any signals. She was probably shot and the collar destroyed,” John Rohrer, a U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist, said this week. Rohrer said there has been no sign of the female since May 2010.

Members of the wolf monitoring team believe that she had given birth before she disappeared.

“We know she was pregnant. We got a photo of her from a baited camera station in March,” Rohrer said.

“We lost her in the middle of May. We spent several weeks looking for her. I think she gave birth but by the time we got to the den there was no sign of mortality,” Fitkin said.

The biologists believe she was killed because she wore a collar that had a “mortality switch,” which would have started giving off a different signal if the wolf became immobile for more than 24 hours, or if the collar had fallen off, Rohrer explained.

The collar had been functioning until the signal suddenly disappeared, along with any sign of the wolf. Wolf team members flew over the wolves’ territory to try to pick up a signal, but found nothing.

“I’m really disappointed if that’s the case – if somebody actually shot her and killed her,” said Fitkin.

The signal from the collar worn by the pack’s alpha male has also stopped, but Fitkin said there is “observational data” collected through tracking and cameras that indicate that the male is still in the area. Rohrer said the team lost the radio signal from the male last November, and at that time the signal sounded as if the battery might be dying.

Wolf team members tracking the wolves in their winter range reported this week finding a deer kill and tracks of two wolves. The team includes the Forest Service, WDFW, and Conservation Northwest, a private group that has supported wolf research and monitoring in the area.

Last spring, the team believed there were seven wolves in the pack, including the alpha pair, a two-year-old and four yearlings from the litter born the previous year.

Wolf-kill case still active

Two wolves from the pack were confirmed killed in 2008 and an investigation by federal and state agents focused on three valley residents who live near the area frequented by the pack.

A Twisp man admitted killing a wolf and having his wife attempt to ship the pelt to Canada, and the man’s father gave contradictory testimony regarding his alleged complicity, according to an affidavit filed in Okanogan County District Court in the spring of 2009.

The case is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Spokane. Tom Rice, first assistant attorney, said this week he couldn’t comment on the case unless a public document, such as a complaint or a grand jury indictment, is filed. “I would tell you if we’d closed out that file, and that file hasn’t been closed out,” Rice said. He said most federal crimes carry a five-year statute of limitations.

Gray wolves are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The taking of a gray wolf is a federal and state crime, punishable by up to a year in prison and fines up to $100,000. Smuggling under federal law carries penalties of fines and up to 10 years imprisonment.

The Lookout Pack will be featured in a British Broadcasting Corporation production focusing on wildlife in the area. This week a BBC crew began filming in the Lookout Mountain area for the program. The crew is setting up camp near the top of Libby Creek during their stay in the area.

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