Wolves killed a yearling calf in the Lake Como area earlier this month and wildlife officials have ordered that the pair of wolves responsible be killed.
So far this year, livestock depredations by wolves are at the lowest point wildlife officials have recorded in the last 10 years.
From Jan. 1, wolves have killed four cows and one dog statewide.
Over the same time period in 2009, wolves killed 17 cattle, three llamas, one dog and injured a calf.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wolf management specialist Liz Bradley said there is no way to know for certain why wolves mostly steered clear of livestock this winter.
It's not because wolf numbers have decreased.
In 2010, wolf numbers grew by 8 percent in Montana. Biologists reported 566 wolves in 108 packs in the state, with at least 35 breeding pairs.
The long winter and heavy snow could be partially responsible.
"After a hard winter and heavy snow, game is typically in worse shape and they may be easier to kill," Bradley said.
Control actions may have also thinned wolf numbers in areas most susceptible to livestock depredation.
A large number of wolves were removed from the Big Hole area over the past two years due to conflicts with livestock.
"We've had two depredations in the Big Hole this winter," Bradley said. "That's generally one of those areas where there are depredations in the winter because most of the wildlife migrates out of there."
Overall, the largest amount of conflict between wolves and livestock occurs in the spring during calving season. The fewest happen over the winter months because most cattle and sheep are off open ranges.
Bradley said it's not clear whether or not members of the Lake Como pack were responsible for the recent depredation.
Officials found two sets of tracks near the calves' carcass.
"We don't know whether those two are a newly formed pair or part of the Lake Como pack," she said.
There is no radio collar on a wolf in the Lake Como pack, which included six wolves last year.
There are currently 12 known packs that use the Bitterroot area at least part of the year.
There could be more.
Bradley encourages the public to report any sightings of wolves or their tracks to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The reports can be made to local FWP offices or via the Internet on the FWP's website: http://fwp.mt.gov/wildthings/management/wolf/wolfObservationForm.html.
"We are continuing to track new pack formations," Bradley said. "That's why it's important to get information from the public, especially this time of year."
Wolves den and have pups in April. They are much more localized during the pup rearing season.
"We track all of the public reports, especially activity in new areas," she said. "We're looking for a cluster in reports. Maybe someone saw some tracks or someone else heard some howling."
"All of that kind of stuff adds up," Bradley said.
Wolves have been in Montana for a while now and are more commonplace.
"People tell me that they don't know if we care about this kind of information anymore," she said. "I really do."
Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or email@example.com.
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