With gray wolves recovered in Northwest Montana, the state wildlife agency’s role has been moving from species monitoring to management, including hunting.
One of the biggest elements of that change is the departure of Kent Laudon, the region’s top wolf expert who retired Friday after a decade spent trapping, tracking and monitoring wolves in the Northwest Recovery Zone, which roughly spans the top half of Montana’s Rocky Mountains.
He started working for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks as the regional wolf management specialist in 2004, tasked with determining how many packs are in the area each year and how many wolves are in each pack.
When he was hired, there was a minimimum of about a dozen packs in his 15,000-square mile coverage area. By 2012, that number had grown to more than 60 packs, and it has remained relatively stable since.
When Jim Williams, the regional supervisor of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, gave Laudon the job 10 years ago, he needed more than a skilled scientist.
“The reason I hired him, he had people skills,” Williams says. “He knows how to talk with people and he had good relationship-building skills. He likes to have fun, but he’s also a darn good wolf biologist who knows how to catch wolves and how to find them.”
Williams describes Laudon as a workaholic who will stay out in the field, camping overnight, until he gets the information he’s after. And prior to the 2011 delisting of the species within the state, wolves were an extremely controversial and emotional issue.
“If you really want to be an effective resource manager, you have to really understand why people think a certain way, what roadblocks there are to people understanding,” Laudon says. “I’ve learned just as much about people as I have about wolves in this job.”
And unlike the stereotypical scientist, Laudon is more than happy to spare the public — and tag-along journalists — the thick jargon of his field.
“The way I look at wolves compared to other wildlife, they’re very signy critters,” Laudon explains, pointing out a wolf scat during a June 5 excursion into the Salish range behind Blacktail Mountain, where he’s looking for a pack that had denned in the area for the past several years.
It’s a tracking strategy he affectionately refers to as “collar and foller,” using radio telemetry to locate a radio-collared individual, and thereby locate the pack. Out of an estimated 67 packs in his tracking area, about 12 have a collared wolf in them, helping Laudon cut down on the amount of time spent searching each pack’s roughly 200 square miles of territory.
Using knowledge of the pack’s whereabouts from prior years, some are easy to locate, denning in the same place year after year to raise the latest litter of pups. Then it’s a matter of sneaking in undetected, attaching a wildlife camera to a tree, and sneaking out to later collect the SD card and count the number of pups and adults.
But the pack he’s looking for has vanished to another spot this year, with only some old droppings scattered around to indicate they may have passed through a while ago.
So now he begins winding up and down the dirt roads in his pickup truck, with a omnidirectional telemetry receiver mounted to the top and occasionally causing periodic “bloops” to emit from the handheld radio into which he enters the wavelength.
The stronger the sound, the closer the wolf — maybe.
“You have to pay attention to the topography, too, it’s all about line of sight. The signal can bounce off of ridges and funnel up drainages,” Laudon says, bringing the truck to a halt.
He plugs the radio into a handheld receiver that can tell direction, unlike the one on his truck. Standing in multiple spots, he slowly spins around until he finds the direction from which the signal sounds the strongest, then uses a map and compass to triangulate the signals.
It’s time-consuming work and might fail to yield results in a single day. But without the radio collars, Laudon has to track the old-fashioned way, looking for scat, wolf kills and mud puddles that might contain a pawprint.
“The whole job becomes 200 square miles, and where are the pups,” he says. “But once you have the pups, you have everything.”
For Montana, it’s the end of an era for that style of wolf monitoring.
In addition to the job’s needle-in-a-haystack nature, the state’s new hunting and trapping seasons for wolves have made the job increasingly difficult.
Laudon said the higher mortality rates for wolves mean that more alpha males and alpha females are dying each year, and the pack’s new alphas might have different notions on where to make their dens for the season.
The 2014 wolf count estimated more than 700 wolves in the state, more than half of which live in Laudon’s counting territory.
Statewide, 213 wolves were trapped or killed by hunters last year, down slightly from 231 in 2013. However, those numbers are up significantly from the first wolf season in 2009, when 72 wolves were harvested.
“I think it was a tipping point for difficulty and do-ability,” Laudon says. “All the time you’re adding new packs, and packs are changing what they’re doing. ... Last season was very difficult. Up until then we tried to monitor the population, but we can’t do it any more.”
Williams agrees, noting that wolves are now being managed rather than monitored. Going forward, he expects that surveys and population sampling will inform hunting quotas, replacing the monitoring work that prevailed when the species was listed as endangered.
“We’re in a different place than we were 10 years ago,” he says. “Wolves are at a point now where we can use a system where we can talk to hunters and trappers and fill in those blanks on the map to know where there are wolves.”
Williams isn’t sure whether Laudon’s position will be filled.
He expects it will be, but the job description likely will change to reflect a different set of priorities, such as post-delisting reporting requirements to the federal government and working on other wildlife programs.
With his work finished in Northwest Montana, Laudon is headed to Alpine, Arizona, where he’s starting a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitoring populations of Mexican wolves, an endangered subspecies of the gray wolf which was nearly extirpated in the 1970s.
Williams says he’s happy for Laudon but still hates to see him go.
“Our loss is the Mexican Wolf Project’s gain.”
Reporter Samuel Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at email@example.com.