It has been a memorable year for wolves in SW Montana. We just completed our first, official Montana wolf hunting season. To no one's surprise (at least the 'no ones' who live in our neck of the woods) it was largely successful. Earlier local ranchers west of here endured the most extensive sheep slaughter (around 150 animals in a two week time frame) in Montana history. This resulted in an entire wolf pack loosing their lives to FWP trappers. Closer to home, there were the wolves which were hunted by trappers near Hidden Lake throughout most of the summer season.
While I know the wolf population is still very healthy, I really expected all the local pressure would have made the local animals not only less in number, but less in confidence. Wrong!
Snow levels are still not sufficient for snowmobiling to the lodge. In fact, they are moderate enough we can still reach it by vehicle. However, since our snowmobiles are NOT at the lodge, we are not staying there full time. In fact, we are playing the tricky early winter game - time at the lodge without getting trapped at the lodge :-) All that to say, there has not been an uninterupped human presence at Elk Lake for the last month. However, taken in context with the facts: wolves in our area have been SHOT at and KILLED, I was amazed by their boldness.
Late last week we arrived at the lodge to find that during the last 24 hours, two elk had been killed on the now frozen lake surface not far from the lodge. The wind was blowing stiffly from the north, obscuring a clear view across the lake. Craig's attention, however, was captured when an eagle flew up from the middle of the bay. Through the binoculars Craig could see the not one, but two dead animals on which they were feeding.
At first he suspected dead coyotes. Upon closer inspection, however, he determined the dark spots were too big to be coyotes. Wolves, perhaps? After all, local frustration has been high enough we suspect there are folks out there who would shoot a wolf, regardless of the legality. The one thing we did NOT expect was a wolf kill! Not this close to the lodge! Not in the wide open!
Curiosity got the better of expedience. Bundled in our cold weather gear we treked out onto the ice. By this time of year the ice is usually quite thick. However, we tred carefully for the first hundred yards, listening for any sound which would indicate a less than trustworthy surface. No problem.
As we drew closer, the first dark spot materialized into a dead elk. With 'thin ice' still in mind, we postulated it may have broken through the ice, possibly broken a leg or gotten stuck, and thus become food for the scavengers. This illusion shattered as we drew closer.
Hair strewn across the lake and large bloody drag spots were the first clues. This animal had not died a natural death! While the cow was not yet frozen solid (with wind chills well below zero this said she hadn't been there long), most of her choice body parts were already consumed.
Between the cow (who lay in about the middle of the bay) and her calf (who lay closer to the far shore), wolf tracks, still quite clear despite the blowing snow, told the rest of the story. In fact, except for one lone coyote, three eagles, a few crows and a half dozen magpies, the primary consumers had obviously been a pack of at least four wolves.
And, so the question remains? What does this bode for our winter? Will we enjoy / endure another winter of the wolf? Are the local animals that hungry? Are there that many? Or, perhaps, is this just a chance kill committed by animals who were just following the elk herd to their winter range?
Time will tell. And, while I look forward to more possible wolf sightings this winter, I also know I will be skiing with one eye to the rear and both ears open - just in case! So continues the 'never-dull-for-a-moment' saga of life at Elk Lake!
Lady of the Lake