Wolves spotted in Bridger Canyon

By SCOTT McMILLION Chronicle Staff Writer

A Bridger Canyon rancher spotted five wolves on his property just a few miles from Bozeman early Monday morning.

"The only thing I did wrong was grab my field glasses instead of my camera," said Charles Papke, whose family has ranched in the canyon for more than a century.

He said three of the wolves were "as black as the tire on a car" and separated from the other two for a brief time.

Those three then laid down to rest about 300 yards away from him, while the other two entered a brushy area and began chasing the whitetail and mule deer that had been there.

"Those deer were running like antelope," he said. "They were getting out of here."

His property lies at the mouth of the canyon, a bit north of the federal fish hatchery on Bridger Creek.

The wolves then regrouped and began moving south leisurely, towards the Kelly Canyon area and Interstate 90, which Papke said is about three miles from his house, as the crow flies.

He last saw them in the Story Hills.

The wolves came fairly close to his cows and calves, he said, but appeared to pay little attention to them.

"They didn't bother nothing," he said. "They were just here. They were hunting and travelling."

He contacted the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and wolf specialist Mike Ross came to Papke's farm later Monday, but could not confirm the presence of wolves, according to FWP spokeswoman Mel Frost.

"He gets calls on wolves every day," Frost said.

The existence of wolves in the Bridgers is possible, she said, but they've never been officially confirmed there before.

However, the Lone Bear Pack has had an established territory across much of the Gallatin Range, just a few miles to the south, for a few years.

It's possible that pack made an exploratory journey across the highway and into the Bridger Canyon, said Ed Bangs, wolf-recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It's also possible they've been in the area for a while and this is just the first time they've been spotted, Bangs said. If that's so, people probably will see and hear them again.

He praised Papke for reporting the sighting to FWP, which is now managing wolves in Montana, though they remain protected by federal law.

"He did absolutely the right thing," Bangs said.

Wolves have a home range of about 200 square miles, but individuals have been known to travel up to 500 miles.

Packs have been known to travel as much as 60 miles out of their territory before returning home, Bangs said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's latest official count of wolves found 153 of them in the state last December.

A late-summer estimate, which is unofficial, put the number at 166. However, at least nine wolves have been killed over the past month for preying on livestock.

Of the statewide total, FWS estimated that 73 were living in southwest Montana at the end of August.