Against the odds, first wolves came home to Glacier National Park 40 years ago

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A wolf pauses on a trail in Glacier National Park. (Chris Peterson photo)

We were hiking a trail in Glacier National Park and there it was — a wolf, staring back at us. The encounter lasted 15 seconds, maybe even less, as the wolf turned and disappeared into the brush like a shadow.

That’s a typical wolf encounter in Glacier National Park — fleeting — which, perhaps, makes it all the more memorable.

The Park has a population of 50 wolves in its 1 million acres, biologists say, about 40 years after the first wolves made the park home again.

The first wolf to be radio collared in the Rocky Mountain region was caught on April 8, 1979 by biologist Joe Smith as part of the Wolf Ecology Project headed up Dr. Robert Ream of the University of Montana.

Ream had started up the project in an attempt to verify wolf reports and sightings in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Wolves had been all but extirpated from the Northern Rockies decades before, hunted and trapped to extinction, even in national parks.

That first wolf was caught about 7 miles north of the border, Kishinena, as she was named, weighed 80 pounds and had a range of 25 to 30 miles on either side of the border, noted biologist Ursula Mattson, who flew twice a week back then to track the wolf. The wolf got her name after the drainage she was caught in.

Based on tracks at the time, Kishinena was running with at least two or three other wolves. She was already 7 to 8 years old when she was caught.

Kishinena, against all odds, was found by a male wolf (the closest established packs at the time were hundreds of miles away in Canada) and the Magic Pack was formed, discovered by then ranger Jerry DeSanto and biologist Diane Boyd just north of the border in 1982.

Boyd had joined the Wolf Ecology Project late in 1979. She still tracks wolves for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks today.

Kishinena had dropped her collar a couple of years earlier, but Boyd had noted a wolf matching her description in the area, Mattson notes in an essay she wrote on the pack in 1987.

While Kishinena was the first wolf caught in the region, it was likely her offspring that set up home in Glacier National Park in 1986, led by an alpha female researchers called Phyllis. Phyllis had been collared after she was accidentally caught in a bear foot snare, Mattson said.

After a series of traumatic events, including the poaching and skinning of a wolf from her pack in when they were in British Columbia, Phyllis moved further south to the comparative comforts of Glacier National Park.

“For the remainder of the spring and early summer many people waited for news of the litter. At last in July, researchers saw five gray pups from the tracking plane; five additions to the small seed of wolf recovery in Montana,” Mattson said.

In 1989 the Camas Pack was believed to be raising a litter in the park, but then biologists discovered it had failed.

When Mattson wrote her essay, the estimate was about 16 to 20 wolves in the region.

But wolves had their ups and downs.

In 1999 the Hungry Horse News featured a story that biologist estimated the Park had just five wolves.

Today, the minimum count of wolves the North Fork region of Glacier is about 25 wolves (including pups) in four packs, though one pack actually resides outside the park, according Boyd.

North Fork wolves have wide ranges and will often leave the park into the Whitefish Range to the east and beyond.

Mattson recalls a male wolf they tracked named Sage, who had a range of at least 2,000 square miles.

Today, wolves also inhabit the southern and eastern regions of the park, note Boyd and park biologist John Waller, but less is known about those wolves because they don’t have radio collars.

Unlike Yellowstone National Park, where wolves were transplanted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from Canada, Glacier’s wolves came here their own. No airplane rides for them, they walked. With protections from hunting and trapping under the Endangered Species Act, the number of wolves in Glacier slowly increased over time and isn’t all that much higher than it was in the 1980s.

Outside the Park, however, wolves have greatly expanded their range.

In 2017 it was estimated there were a minimum of 633 wolves in 124 packs with 63 breeding pairs in the statewide. A breeding pair is defined as two adults with two pups of the year that survive until December.

Wolves in Montana are no longer protected under the Endangered Species Act and are under state management, with the notable exception of national parks, where it is illegal to hunt and trap them.

In the North Fork, the state sets limits on the wolf take. In deference to those first wolves to colonize the region, Montana has set the wolf quota in the North Fork to two wolves each season. Most of the state has no quota.

Wolf numbers in Yellowstone recently made headlines after Yellowstone wolf biologist Doug Smith noted the Park had an estimated population of 80 wolves, which is less than half of the 174 wolves counted in the park in 2003.

A variety of factors account for the Yellowstone decline, including disease and wolves killing wolves, Smith noted in a recent Facebook live video. Wolves are very territorial and will often kill members of competing packs.

From a human standpoint, wolves also have a greater following in Yellowstone than in Glacier, because Yellowstone’s wolves are far easier to watch from a vehicle, as huge portions of the park are treeless and wolves can be spotted from the road.

In Glacier, the park is largely forested and the wolves generally keep away from people. The park also closes portions of the North Fork to off-trail travel to protect denning wolves from wandering human visitors.

Both parks have the same regulations regarding wolves — people are required to stay 100 yards from wolves.

In Glacier, the closest most visitors get is seeing tracks or scat in a trail. If they’re lucky, they’ll hear one howl on a cold lonely night, with the full moon shining — just the way wolves like it.

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