A group of five wolves that wandered north from Wyoming into Carbon County last Tuesday acquired local video fame before one was shot.
A black male member of the pack was legally shot by a hunter outside Joliet on Friday, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
The wolf could be the same one shown in a video posted on Montana Wolf Hunting and Trapping’s Facebook page. In the post, a docile-looking large black wolf crosses a gravel road behind a Carbon County Sheriff’s vehicle, steps into the borrow pit and then walks alongside the videographer’s vehicle as he scrambles to get back into his rig.
It is not known who shot the video.
The wolf pack was visible for some time, walking close to Highway 72 between the Wyoming state line and Belfry on Tuesday, said Shawn Stewart, an FWP wildlife biologist based in Red Lodge.
By Friday the pack had moved close to Joliet where the black male was shot. The Montana wolf season is open until March 15. Since then, Stewart hasn’t heard any reports of where the pack may have gone. None of the wolves, as far as he knew, were collared, so exactly where they came from is unknown.
Elk is the wolves’ favorite winter prey in Yellowstone National Park. Outside of the park wolves will sometimes kill livestock.
Carbon County drew international attention back in 1995 when two of the 14 wolves originally released in Yellowstone National Park migrated to the county. The male and female bred and had pups. Although the animals had just been reintroduced and were being protected from hunting as an experimental species, a Red Lodge resident illegally shot and killed the alpha male.
A lot has changed in the 23 years since that incident. Wolf populations grew to the point that they were removed from federal protection and management was turned over to the surrounding states where hunting and trapping seasons now exist. So far this season, 186 wolves have been trapped or shot in Montana since September.
Montana’s wolf population, confined to Western Montana, was estimated at 477 in 2016. FWP is testing a new way of counting the animals, called the Patch Occupancy Model, which when applied to the 2014 count put the population about 60 percent higher.
Wolves are known to roam the Beartooth Face, especially closer to the Boulder River Valley. Although Joliet is about 25 miles from the foothills of the Beartooth Mountains, the country is sparsely populated.
“I think they were just on a winter walkabout,” Stewart said.
Wolves are well-known travelers, covering up to 30 miles in a day with territories that can span 50 miles, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Dispersing wolves, those who leave their pack, have trekked as far as 600 miles.
On an unusual side note, Carbon County has been the site of Montana's first special chronic wasting disease hunt for deer this winter. Wolf advocates have championed the wild canines as a natural means of reducing spread of the disease by killing sickly CWD-infected animals.