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Dog owners, especially in rural or remote areas, are being advised to keep a close eye on their pets in the next few months as wolves in Montana disperse from packs to look for mates.

While wolves may attack domestic dogs throughout the year, they’re particularly aggressive from December into February toward dogs and each other as they compete for breeding opportunities, according to Carolyn Sime, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wolf program coordinator.

Just last week, one dog being used to hunt mountain lions was killed and two others injured northwest of Red Lodge, Sime said.

Wolf tracks were found around the dead dog, which had severe bite wounds on its neck and back. The two dogs that were injured also had bite wounds, but are expected to survive.

“During the breeding season, wolves are naturally aggressive toward each other, reinforcing their status even within the existing pack. It’s an interspecies hard-wired behavior that can and does transfer toward domestic dogs this time of year,” Sime said. “Wolves can act aggressively toward domestic dogs and kill dogs at any time of year, but that is particularly true leading up to and during the breeding season.”

She added that wolves are social creatures, so they might check out domestic dogs at other times of the year and not harm them.

From 1979 through 2008, at least 118 domestic dogs were killed by wolves. Most are either dogs used by lion hunters or dogs protecting livestock — instances where humans aren’t present — but occasionally it is someone’s pet. Lion hunting dogs seem to be particularly vulnerable due to the nature of the sport.

Sime added that the number of dogs killed by wolves probably is low, because the deaths either are not confirmed wolf kills or are not reported.

“You can have a lion hunter whose dogs don’t come back and there are wolf tracks around the area; or they find the dog and the wolf tracks are there, but they just bury the dog. Or they may not want to tell at all,” Sime said. “Or you have a vacationer in Big Sky who lets Scruffy out and he disappears into the woods, and someone says they thought they saw a wolf. Those aren’t confirmed kills.”

She said that it’s not common for a wolf to come into a person’s yard, but it does happen.

On Dec. 29, a landowner in the Bear Creek area of the Madison Valley south of Ennis shot a wolf that was in his yard and reportedly was acting aggressively. The incident is under investigation.

“Every year we get a handful of reports of wolves being in someone’s yard,” Sime said.

FWP is encouraging dog owners to keep their pets in secure kennels or inside buildings at night during the next few months, and to not let them roam freely during the day if humans aren’t around. Sime adds that when fresh wolf sign is found — often a paw print or scat — to put pets on a leash and keep them supervised.

People with concerns or problems with wolves near their residences, outbuildings, livestock or pets should also contact FWP.

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George Edwards with the state Board of Livestock said they’ve had claims requesting compensation for three guard dogs in Montana so far this year. One dog was killed in the spring near Hall; two other guard dogs on the Sieben Ranch north of Helena were killed in October and November.

While state law allows for those “working” dog owners to be compensated for their losses, it’s sometimes hard to come up with a fair price, Edwards said.

“For certain breeds, a pup goes for $800, so what is a trained dog worth?” he asked rhetorically. “I’m sure it’s much more, and we want to be fair.”

Pet owners can’t be compensated, nor can people like the ones near Red Lodge who use dogs to track mountain lions, if their dog is killed by wolves.

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“When the Legislature put the bill together, they specifically said what would be livestock for compensation purposes,” Edwards said. “That includes horses, sheep, goats, mules, swine, guard animals and the legislation was recently changed to include llamas.”

Montana law does allow people to harass a wolf when it’s too close to humans, livestock or domestic dogs.

People can kill a wolf if it’s attacking or killing a domestic dog, too, and Sime said in those cases people should contact her office within 72 hours, and sooner is better, so officials can review the evidence.

In the Sieben Ranch case, FWP authorized the removal of the seven-to-nine-member Mitchell Mountain pack after the second guard dog was killed. So far, the federal Wildlife Services agency has killed three of them, and efforts to get the rest of the pack are ongoing. The landowner has a valid shoot-on-sight permit.

Gray wolves were considered an endangered species in the northern Rockies since the 1970s, and efforts to bolster their numbers began in 1994 and 1995 with the release of wolves into Yellowstone National Park and Idaho. At last count, at least 1,600 roam in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, and this year they were removed from the Endangered Species Act protection in Montana and Idaho.

Those two states also instituted wolf hunting seasons in 2009 as part of management plans to keep the population in check.

However, the delisting of wolves as an endangered species is being litigated in federal court, and Montana will take up discussions in February as to whether a second wolf hunting season will be held this fall.

More informationCall Carolyn Sime at 444-3242 for information about domestic dogs and wolves. For additional information on wolf impacts on livestock, call George Edwards at 444-5609.

 

Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or eve.byron@helenair.com

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