By JIM MANN
The (Kalispell) Daily Inter Lake
POLSON (AP) - The Cessna banks hard, turning tightly with a wing pointed down toward the signal emanating from a radio collar on one of the wolves in Northwest Montana's Hog Heaven Pack.
The wolf is hidden in a timber thicket far west of Polson, and no more than 200 yards away is a mother bison with a calf. These bison are not wild. They are livestock. Within a radius of no more than two miles is another collared wolf, two large clusters of bison and a single elk.
The collared wolves of the Hog Heaven Pack, and all other wolves located on a recent morning flight, have obvious choices in front of them: livestock or wild game.
And for several years now, the packs of western Montana have shown a strong preference for fleet white-tailed deer over plodding cattle or bison.
Compared to the far more numerous and often-reported livestock depredations carried out by wolves around Yellowstone National Park and Idaho, western Montana wolves have been keeping a low profile.
''It's kind of surprising to people that most wolves are around livestock every day of their lives and they kind of choose not to attack them,'' said Ed Bangs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's gray wolf recovery coordinator. ''Given the unlimited opportunities for wolves to chase livestock, it's kind of surprising, even to us ... that there's as few conflicts as there are.''
That observation holds true particularly in western Montana, where only six cows and one sheep were confirmed as being killed by wolves in 2004. The Cook Pack of Idaho, by contrast, killed 85 sheep last year. In response, all nine wolves in the pack were destroyed by federal trappers in a helicopter hunt. And just two weeks ago, 11 sheep were confirmed as being killed by wolves in the Paradise Valley north of Yellowstone National Park.
Kent Laudon, the new wolf management specialist for northwest Montana, recalls working with the Cook Pack when he worked for the Nez Perce Tribe. His job for a while involved keeping tabs on the pack and hazing the wolves whenever it appeared they were getting close to livestock.
But there's nothing easy about keeping up with a wolf pack, even when one or more of the animals are wearing radio collars. They eventually got into the sheep.
Since being hired by Montana last fall, Laudon has been trying to keep up with more than a dozen wolf packs with home ranges spread across the western part of the state.
A big part of the job is conducting regular monitoring flights with Dave Hoerner, who makes the majority of wildlife monitoring flights in western Montana.
After tracking down the Hog Heaven Pack, Hoerner and Laudon travel northwest to look for the Fishtrap Pack. It doesn't take long to dial in on collar signals and see a gray wolf and two black wolves in plain view.
Last year, there were no confirmed livestock kills attributed to the Fishtrap Pack, but one of their own was found dead, with suspicions pointing toward people as the cause.
The Wolf Prairie Pack is next on the list, with signals emerging north of Pleasant Valley. The first wolf can't be spotted. So Hoerner tries to locate the second.
As Hoerner approaches the signal, flying low over patchy ponderosa pine, three white-tailed deer pop out of the trees in full flight.
''He probably jumped those deer and missed. He's out hunting,'' Hoerner said of the wolf. Two passes later and the wolf comes into view, loping down a logging road.
Once again, there are cattle less than a couple miles away. The Wolf Prairie Pack is believed to be responsible for the loss of two calves last year, and possibly one so far this year.
The ''probable'' calf kill raises a simmering issue regarding wolves and livestock depredation statistics. Many ranchers contend the statistics don't match reality.
For Elmer ''Mick'' Sieler, the official stats on the Wolf Prairie pack in ''no way, no shape, no form'' represent the pack's impacts on his herd in the Wolf Creek area north of Pleasant Valley.
''You've got to have solid evidence that they did the killing,'' he said. ''But when everything gets eaten, like wolves usually do, there's no evidence left.''
A federal agent investigated the probable calf kill earlier this year on Sieler's ranch, but said there was no way to confirm what had killed the calf.
The flight proceeds to extreme northwest Montana, where one wolf has been collared in the Candy Mountain Pack, which had three animals as of last December. On this flight, however, the signal can't be picked up, demonstrating the often sketchy nature of keeping up with wolves.
With special clearance, Hoerner crosses 20 miles north of the Canadian border, looking for the Kootenai Pack, which denned in Montana last year. Hoerner homes in on a signal coming from a treeline next to a meadow where there are frolicking deer and, not too far away, more cattle.
Last on the flight are the Lazy Creek and Murphy Lake packs north of Whitefish. It's after noon and the collared wolves are bedded down in the shade, out of sight from the circling airplane.
But Laudon studies their locations. In less than a week, he goes on to trap two wolves in the Murphy Lake Pack, fitting them with radio collars.
Laudon and other wolf watchers say the abundance of whitetails has played a huge role in the relatively low incidences of livestock kills. But that comes as no comfort to many hunters who contend that wolves have put a big dent in game populations.
Jim Williams, wildlife manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department in the northwestern part of the state, said he hears plenty of complaints from hunters. But all of his game check station and aerial survey numbers point to strong whitetail populations.
Wolves do affect whitetail populations, usually in specific areas, but they do not drive whitetail population trends, he said.
Williams said biologists are concerned about potential impacts on moose, which have smaller populations in more concentrated areas.
But even after several years of relatively light depredation problems, Laudon said packs in close proximity to livestock are always cause for questions and concerns.
That's especially true when summer comes and cattle are turned out onto large grazing leases, raising the potential for unconfirmed wolf kills.
Wolves in Idaho and the Greater Yellowstone inhabit much larger swaths of remote areas, but there is also a good mix of open prairie that is suitable for large livestock operations, Bangs said. Western Montana, by contrast, has rugged country with thick vegetation and considerably less livestock.
And there are far fewer sheep grazing in northwest Montana.