Saturday was one of those almost but not quite days for the Campbell County boys soccer team. Top-ranked and consensus favorite to win the Class 4A state soccer tournament, the Camels fell just …
JACKSON, Wyo. — Standing in the middle of the National Elk Refuge, a small band of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees watch the approaching helicopter.
It clatters over the usually silent preserve, then settles onto frozen ground about 50 yards away. It's normal in all respects, except for something dangling out an open door.
A wolf's tail.
While the chopper blades still spin, wolf expert Mike Jimenez hops out of the airship, bear-hugs a tranquilized wolf that's inside and carefully sets it on the ground. A second, third and fourth wolf follow.
The cadre of federal employees is accustomed to all manner of wildlife, from thousands of elk to hundreds of bison that winter on the 25,000-acre refuge. This is different.
"You don't see that every day," says Lori Iverson, the refuge spokeswoman who's experiencing her first hands-on encounter with the Pinnacle Peak Pack.
Iverson, along with refuge biologist Eric Cole and refuge manager Steve Kallin, were on-site one recent afternoon to learn what it takes to monitor the resident pack. Tim Pratt, a biological volunteer, joins them.
Although wolves have made a home of the refuge for nearly 15 years, they're a species the staff has had relatively little involvement with to date.
"Now that they're delisted and no longer in the Endangered Species program, they're like other wildlife on the refuge," Kallin says.
"So, we're responsible for them.
"Mike is training us on how to process wolves, put collars on them."
Jimenez is as suited as anyone to educate the elk refuge crew about wolf capturing and collaring. He's worked in the field on wolves for 25 years, most recently as Fish and Wildlife's wolf management and science coordinator for the Northern Rockies. Before his agency removed federal protections for Wyoming wolves at the end of September, Jimenez managed the recovery program in the state.
In his current role, he helps the state of Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, the Wind River Indian Reservation and the elk refuge as they start to monitor and manage their wolf populations.
Formed in 2009, the Pinnacle Peak Pack numbered 13 at the end of 2011, reports show. Refuge biologists want to better understand how it influences the movements, density and distribution of the 7,500 or so elk that winter there.
"This is the only pack that we're aware of that dens on the refuge, and it is the primary pack that hunts the refuge," Kallin says.
The home range, characteristic of wolves, is huge.
"It's amazing that they den on the refuge, leave their pups on the refuge, go over to Granite Creek, kill elk and then bring the meat back for their pups," he says. "It's a long haul for groceries."
— Wary wolves
When Jimenez and Bob Hawkins, a contracted pilot, searched for the pack that morning they found nine wolves together. Jimenez was ready to dart some of them from the air, a task best performed on the unwary.
Pinnacle Peak doesn't quite fit into that category: Four wolves already had collars. By the end of the day, four more would.
"A pack that hasn't been darted before is very naive, and they don't understand what's going on," Jimenez says. "Then they get smarter and smarter. They hear the twirling of the rotor of the helicopter and they make a beeline for the trees.
"It's like playing pool — boom, boom, boom," Jimenez says. "They all go in different directions."
Hawkins, who guesses he's flown 400 wolf sorties, tries to fly alongside individual wolves about 15 or 20 feet off the ground to allow Jimenez to make a clean shot. As each wolf is darted, GPS coordinates are recorded and the chopper moves on to the next animal.
The sleeping animals are rounded up after the desired number has been hit.
Darting took about 30 minutes, Jimenez says. The final take included a yearling male and three pups of the year: two gray females and a black male.
After landing, Jimenez is all business, bouncing around from wolf to wolf.
The tranquilizer used, Telazol, keeps the wolves subdued for an hour and a half or two hours, he says.
In addition to fitting wolves with GPS and very high frequency, or VHF, collars, the elk refuge staff aims to conduct a series of tests in the short time allotted.
The first step is getting the right collar set to the right size and fixed to the right wolf.
"This is a good-sized pup," Jimenez says of the black male. "Let's do the GPS on that one.'"
The GPS collars — which cost $3,000 to $5,000 and record a location every 30 minutes — would be too heavy for the smaller females.
The leather collars, lined with metal wiring to prevent chewing, are timed to pop off Feb. 15, 2015 — in about two years.
Until then, data generated will be shared with Grand Teton National Park and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. It will help biologists monitor the pack's size, track its whereabouts and record deaths.
While elk refuge personnel took blood, whisker and follicle samples, Jimenez was vigilant about making sure the wolves' health was holding up.
"Temperatures — everybody doing temperatures?" he asked. "Anybody hot?
"I got 104.9," Iverson says.
"I'd go ahead and move it to the shade and stick some snow on it," Jimenez responds.
The 101- to 102-degree range is healthy for a wolf, he says. Because of stress, temperatures spike when wolves are captured. If they climb into the 106- or 107-degree range, it can damage the animals' organs.
Iverson, following Jimenez's instructions, jumps on the task of keeping the wolves' eyes lubricated.
"This is awesome," she said. "I can't believe I'm putting eye drops in his eyes.
"C'mon bubby," she says, "now you got to help me and open your eyes a little more. The other guys were a little more cooperative."
As the testing and sampling wraps up, Jimenez lends biologist Cole some advice: "With the collar, if the hair gets tight, just push it up so that it's not stuck," he says.
He then strays from the emotionless stereotype of the objective scientist, revealing the passion a dedicated manager has for his or her charge.
"And then I usually talk to them and tell them to stay away from livestock — stick to elk and deer," he says. "We have a kind of man-to-man talk before we let them go."
Jimenez knows the wolves don't speak English.
— It gets personal
One part of wolf management the refuge likely won't inherit is taking "control actions," an agency euphemism for killing wolves that kill livestock, sheep and other domestic animals.
"It gets very personal," Jimenez says. "I do have a man-to-man. But they're like kids: Sometimes they listen and sometimes they don't."
Well after nightfall, Cole and Pratt, the volunteer, wait for the last of the sleeping wolves to rise. It's taking longer than expected.
The 1-year-old male, it turned out, had accidentally been darted twice.
"He'll be sleeping for a while," Jimenez said when he discovered the second dart.
He was right.
At 11 p.m., after watching the yearling find his feet, Cole and Pratt call it a night.