It's a warm morning in the hills southwest of Livingston. I'm traveling along a ranch road with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks wolf management specialist Abby Nelson. She's ahead of me on an ATV as we rumble over a cattle guard overlooking a creek bed. The fading aspens on the hillside foretell autumn.

Nelson is one of six FWP wolf management specialists. She oversees a broad swath of Montana — everything east of Bozeman to the Dakota line, north to the Musselshell River and south to Yellowstone National Park and Wyoming. She's been working with wolves for nine years and looks the part — clad in well-worn Red Ant Pants, dusty boots and work gloves.

Today, we are on a ranch in Park County, where Nelson is setting a trap line in hopes of collaring a wolf from a pack that roams the area. Nelson first discovered the pack three summers ago. The white-coated alpha male she observed that first year still holds sway over the other pack members.

“Last year I did not have a collar on this pack, so a lot of the tracking I had to do the old-fashioned way,” Nelson said. “In the winter it's skis and snowmobiles, and during the summer it is all means — 4-wheeler, hiking, horseback. Wolves cover a lot of country, so it takes a lot of time to keep up with them without the technology of a radio collar.”

Each of FWP's six wolf management specialists is charged with three main field tasks. The first is population monitoring — establishing the counts the state uses to manage wolves. The second is managing conflicts with livestock by working with other agencies, landowners and ranchers to address threats and depredation. The final field task is to deploy radio collars.

Trapping and helicopter darting are the most common means of collar deployment in the Paradise Valley. Nelson's trap line today consists of a series of traps spread over 5 miles of terrain. Nelson anchors each trap to the ground with a stake, then meticulously masks the trap with soil, leaves and twigs from the immediate area. Finally, Nelson baits each trap, today's getting a dose of putrid-smelling wolf gland and urine.

“Wolves are smart,” Nelson said. “They know we've been here, so usually it is a matter of making your (trap's) scent more compelling than the human scent that is around.”

The average territory of a wolf in Montana spans 220 square miles. Nelson said that means it can be a week or two before a wolf will pass through an area. She'll be up to check her traps before 8:30 every morning until the wolves pass back through.

In the event one of the traps is successful, Nelson will go to work fitting the animal with a radio collar.

“When you approach a wolf in a trap, they are typically submissive,” Nelson said. “The first thing is to get drug in it as quickly as possible to minimize stress on the animal.”

Nelson said wolves each have a distinct personality. Some are really bold and aggressive; others aren't so bright; and some a really shy and suspicious. Depending on the situation and the wolf, Nelson will use either a noose pole and syringe or a dart pistol to subdue the animal.

Once the wolf is asleep, Nelson will fit it with a collar and take a blood sample for disease surveillance and genetic testing. Next she'll measure and weigh the wolf and determine what sex the animal is. If it is a female, Nelson will try to determine is the animal is pregnant, has recently bred or if it is lactating.

The drug's effects generally wear off after about 45 minutes. Nelson said rubber padding on the traps leaves the wolf unharmed.

“Sometimes I will pull a trap off their foot and you can't even tell which foot it is (that was caught),” Nelson said. “Other times there will be a little indentation because the springs are strong and the traps hold tight. All of the wolves I trap I check up on the day after and I haven't seen any limping, so I think that is a good sign.”

After waking from the drug, the wolf will rejoin its pack. Nelson can then monitor the movements of the wolf and record data on its territory. Nelson will also observe the wolf monthly from the air to get a bird's eye view of its movements and count the number of wolves in its pack.

Nelson said collaring is FWP's best tool to manage livestock conflicts and get population counts. At the end of each year FWP comes up with a statewide number to compare to the previous year's population.

“That directs our harvest approach, so I am really dedicated to getting good on-the-ground information,” Nelson said. “I think it is really important to have strong data so that as we go forward introducing new management tools like hunting and trapping, we have a good sense of where the population is at and how it is responding to those tools.”

At the end of 2012, at least 625 wolves roamed the Montana landscape. FWP Region 3 spokeswoman Andrea Jones said the department hopes to see the wolf population stabilize or decline this hunting season.

“We are well above where we need to be by our standards,” Jones said. “We did see 4 percent decrease in wolf population from 2011 year-end to 2012 year-end, but the prior year we had seen a 15 percent increase despite our harvest attempts. We are learning and hunters and trappers are learning, but we still want to see a leveling off. The balance with other species is still unstable in some areas.”

An additional benefit of collaring is determining how wolves die. When a collared wolf stops moving for a given period of time, a signal is dispatched.

“That mortality information — cause of death, where they die, how they die — is really essential to managing the population. It is one of the most key metrics that we use to understand how the population is doing, where it is headed and the impacts of various mortality factors on the population.”

Jones said the department's efforts are yielding results.

“Part of our wolf plan is recognizing that they are a native species,” Jones said. “It is working them in among the livestock producers and the wildlife enthusiast and watchers.

“We understand that there are various and very interested parties surrounding the wolf issue, and we want them to understand we are working for the best balance possible.”

Ben Pierce can be reached at bpierce@dailychronicle.com and 582-2625.

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