THE BUZZ: Lobo Lust Wipes Out 19 Wapiti

By on March 29, 2016

Elk massacre in the Hoback is a rare example frenzy killing by the wolf.

Wolf opponents in Wyoming have new ammo against the lobo after wolves killed 19 elk on the McNeel feedground south of Bondurant.  (Photo: facebook)

Wolf opponents in Wyoming have new ammo against the lobo after wolves killed 19 elk on the McNeel feedground south of Bondurant.  (Photo: facebook)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Bears do it. So do foxes, honey badgers, and mountain lions. Even orcas and household lap cats do it. Most every predator on the planet exhibits some form of frenzy killing or henhouse syndrome, as it’s referred to by some.

When wolves do it, westerners get worked up.

“They like to kill. They are natural born killers,” Joanna Johnson said. She heads the 32-year-old advocacy group Concerned Citizens to Save the Elk. Johnson’s comments stem from the “surplus killing” that occurred on the McNeel feedground south of Bondurant where 19 elk were recorded slaughtered by wolves last Wednesday night. Wolves ate little of the kill—some choice parts like cheeks and hearts—leaving mostly carcasses.

In a state where many ranchers and outfitters have kept a leery eye on wolf reintroduction, last week’s rampage stirred up longstanding hatred for the lobo.

It’s definitely bad press for wolves. They would do well with a PR person right now,” said Dr. Franz Camenzind. The respected wildlife cinematographer has studied coyotes and wolves extensively in the wild.

What happened?

What authorities know about the elk massacre is sometime during the night on March 23, wolves killed 19 elk, 17 of which were calves. The wolves in question are thought to be members of the Rim Pack—a group of an estimated seven to nine wolves first discovered in 2008 after a 3-year-old collared male dispersed from the infamous Pinnacle Pack.

The pack has been known to kill an elk or two a night in the vicinity of the McNeel and Dell Creek feedgrounds, according to Wyoming Game and Fish regional supervisor John Lund. He has seen mass depredation before—“maybe six or seven,” he said—but never anything like 19. He called the event “extremely rare.”

A week before the surplus killing, five of the estimated 16-head Dell Creek Pack were gunned down from helicopter by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) after incidents of cattle depredation on a ranch near Bondurant. Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Coordinator Mike Jimenez called the pack, which appeared out of nowhere in 2014, large and problematic. Livestock depredation has continued after the removal of the five wolves, Jimenez said, likely prompting additional measures in the near future.

Authorities do not believe there is any correlation between the two packs and recent issues.

Why wolves go haywire

What exactly triggers a killing spree in predators like the wolf? Jimenez says while 19 dead elk is unusual, mass killing sprees are not.

“Wolves kill things. They are predators and killing more than they can eat in a single setting is nothing new,” Jimenez said. “In the wild, they test animals and go for what’s available, what’s vulnerable. In a feedground in late winter there is a lot that’s vulnerable and available. Animals are not in real good shape. We’ve seen these things with domestic sheep—fairly big numbers being killed—and sometimes in the wild in very cold winters when the snow is deep, but not in these numbers.”

Jimenez would not speculate as to why wolves seemingly kill to kill. “Maybe they’re putting food in the pantry,” he offered, adding that wolves often return to slaughtered carcasses later. Camenzind has studied wild dogs extensively and says an explanation into the behavior is less complicated than some make it out to be.

“It’s very basic stuff, really,” Camenzind said. “Wild predators, whether they are a cat or dog, they start out with searching, that then turns into chasing. Once those instincts kick in, those patterns establish a process and the wolf goes to the next step—they capture and kill, and that’s usually it. But if there are more animals available, that running and chasing gets out of control because that stimulus is still there. Who knows what happened in the [McNeel feedground case] but things probably still kept milling around and the instinct kept going. It happens more in feedgrounds where you have this congested prey and a scenario set up where you are more likely to get this. I am surprised it doesn’t happen more often, honestly.”

Jimenez, too, says he’s somewhat surprised surplus killings are so rare given the ripe conditions.

“You just don’t see this happening very often even though there are six or seven thousand elk on 22 feedgrounds in northwest Wyoming,” Jimenez said. “I don’t think it’s [evidence of] how many wolves are out there because you only see this rarely with a small pack doing it. It has nothing to do with the overall population or you would see it happening all over the place.”

As far as what happened at the McNeel feedgrounds that caused the Rim Pack to waste prey will never be known, according to Lund. “While predation on this elk herd has been frequent throughout the winter, it is impossible to speculate what may have triggered this event the other night,” he said. “We do not, and probably never will, know exactly why or how this happened.”

As far as Johnson is concerned, surplus killing by wolves is evidence of their true nature.  Many anti-wolf people feel the same way.

“They didn’t even eat [the elk]. They’ll go on to kill more,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t say they go haywire, that’s just the way they are. They do it with sheep. They are just killing machines.”

Waste not, want not

When wolves kill indiscriminately it seems to go against what the notorious predator usually does. Wolves play a finely tuned role in ungulate herd culling. Occasionally, though, wolves massacre more than they can eat in one sitting. The wasteful depredation puzzles many wildlife biologists but there is evidence that the carnivore does return to the scene of the crime to feed—sometimes for days and weeks afterwards.

“If this had been a more natural situation, where people had not removed the elk, I don’t think there is any question they would have returned,” Camenzind said. “In Yellowstone there was one carcass that wolves went back to and gnawed on the bones over a 100-day period. And then there are all the other critters that are going to those carcasses. In a sense, it is not all wasted.”

Jimenez and his team studied wolf behavior over an eight-year period and found similar instances of residual feeding.

“We’ve done a lot of research on feedgrounds in particular. What we found is all packs are not the same,” Jimenez said. “Packs all have their own personalities. Some don’t come back, some do. Some could care less about external pressures like human presence and nearby traffic, and return to the carcass no matter what. Others are really averse to returning. In a lot of natural situations wolves come back for days and sometimes weeks. We wont know here because the carcasses were removed.”

Jimenez does not believe wolves make excess killings as part of a teaching tool for young pups. Some speculate that wolves make these surplus killings mainly in spring in order to teach their young to hunt, much like cats who sometimes appear to toy with prey in order to teach their kittens how to hunt.

“Imagine being a predator. You are going to chase something that is three to four times your weight, and all you have is your teeth. There is a fair amount of effort expended,” Jimenez explained. “Pups are not taught this way. They participate in the hunt the way the adults do. Wolf packs are most effective when they hunt as a group. The pups may hang back a little in the chase. But the idea that they are being taught in a [surplus killing] is a stretch at best. Between their natural instincts and the fact that they learn very quickly, it’s not as if they need to have practice or something. This behavior has evolved over time and they’re very good at what they do.”

Management moving forward

With wolf numbers at an all-time high, management of the carnivore is set to shift from federal protection to individual state control. Wolf advocates fear retaliation for surplus killings by state management agencies. Even the feds caught some blowback for their handling of a 2004 incident when rampaging wolves wiped out 70 free-ranging sheep near McCall, Idaho, on June 29, 2004. A month later, on July 20, federal wildlife agents killed the entire Cook Pack responsible for the massacre.

Lund feels his hands are tied when it comes to dealing with depredation involving wild game.

“With management authority we would have had options to address the situation earlier in the year as it became evident impacts were becoming a concern,” he said. “Options may have included targeted hunter opportunity, agency removal, etcetera.”

Johnson agreed, “We definitely need some management control over them.”

The Rim Pack has three collared animals and is being monitored by FWS. The latest official tally of wolves was conducted at the end of 2014. Wyoming had 229 wolves in the state with an additional 104 in Yellowstone National Park for a total of 333 wolves. The Northern Rocky Mountain region, encompassing Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, has an approximate population of 1,657 wolves in 282 packs, including 85 breeding pairs. PJH

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