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Wednesday, May 5, 2004


The B2 chronicles

Idaho’s oldest wolf passes

Express Staff Writer

Of all the wolves roaming the American West, an Idaho wolf named Chat Chaat was the oldest. In fact, the 13-year-old ward of the Endangered Species Act was one of the oldest wolves ever documented in the wild—anywhere.

B2, also known as Chat Chaat, was Idaho’s oldest wolf. He died last winter in the White Cloud Mountains. He was photographed in 2001 while biologists worked to put a new radio collar on him. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wolf Recovery Coordinator Carter Neimeyer helped re-collar the old wolf. Courtesy photo

In February, Chat Chaat’s legacy was sealed when wildlife managers received a mortality signal from his radio collar. Because of his age and because he was living in an area where wolves have repeatedly clashed with ranchers, biologists feared he may have issued his last howl.

On April 15, after winter snows receded, three biologists trekked into a tributary of Herd Creek in the eastern White Cloud Mountains to investigate the old wolf’s fate.

"There were no obvious signs of the cause of his death," said Jim Holyan, a wildlife biologist with the Nez Perce Tribe Wolf Recovery Project. "There was a bull elk that was dead near him. The supposition is that he might have been kicked and died of internal injuries. Or he might have just gotten old and died."

Although Holyan was not one of the biologists who helped investigate the site, he is on a team of researchers who is writing a paper about wolf longevity in the Northern Rockies. Chat Chaat is the centerpiece for the paper.

"If we assume that he was four when he came down from Canada, he would have been 13.8 years old when he died," Holyan said. "I think as far as his age goes, he’s very noteworthy. He’s the oldest one we know of in the Northern Rockies."

Chat Chaat, who occasionally visited the Wood River Valley, was a large wolf accented with cream colors. His head was large and blocky. Nez Perce Tribe Wolf Recovery Leader Curt Mack called him a "big bruiser" with a "big, sturdy skeletal frame."

His name, given by Nez Perce students before his 1995 release, means "Older Brother" in Nez Perce. Like the stereotypical older sibling, he had a strong aura about him.

"He had a real strong presence," said Suzanne Stone, Rocky Mountain field representative for Defenders of Wildlife and a member of the team that helped capture wolves in Canada and release them to the wilds of Idaho and Wyoming. "He was one of the unusual wolves that looked through you rather than look at you. He wasn’t afraid. He seemed to be the most sure of himself, the most confident of those first four wolves that we released."

Chat Chaat, Idaho’s oldest wolf until last winte, covered a lot of ground during his 13 years. Most recently, he lived in Central Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains, where biologists routinely fly to monitor wolf activity using radio telemetry equipment. Express photo by Willy Cook

Last winter, Chat Chaat was one of roughly four remaining wolves of the original 66 that were reintroduced to Idaho in 1995 and 1996. He was the only remaining wolf of those released the first year.

During his years as a Gem State resident, Chat Chaat helped the wolf recovery program to prosper. He fathered no fewer than 11 pups, and in the war of attrition that is subsistence in the wilds, B2 was a survivor.

His story embodies the successes and failures of the Idaho Wolf Reintroduction Program. The very fact that he lived to attain senior citizen status is a testament to the program’s prosperity. Wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies is seen as a smashing biological success. Conversely, B2’s interactions with livestock were evidence of the obstacles the program has yet to hurdle.

Chat Chaat was the second wolf set loose as part of the Idaho Wolf Reintroduction Program. The name given to him by researchers was B2, and that name told the story of his citizenship. "B" signified that he lived in Idaho, and "2" related to his place among the 66 gray wolves captured in Canada and relocated to the American West.

When he was set free along the banks of the Salmon River on January 14, 1995, B2 was 4 years old. He was released immediately after a wolf called B5.

"I believe the first thing he did—he ran a few hundred yards and peed," Stone said. He was set free with a radio collar that had been anointed by the Nez Perce students with his name, Chat Chaat.

While some of the wolves quickly denned up in easy-to-find locations, Chat Chaat was discreet. In the span of five years, biologists picked up his radio signal only 11 times, including a year when they didn’t find him at all. He was thought to have traveled widely, and he was considered a loner.

"He was here, there and gone," Holyan said.

Mack put it this way:

"My impression is that B2 covered an enormous amount of the country before he found a mate," he said. "We lost radio contact with him for quite a while. There’s a big gap of information there where we lost track of him."

Wildlife managers were at a loss to explain where he had gone until the winter of 1998, when he was discovered in the Boulder Mountains near Ketchum. He remained in the Sun Valley area until the winter of 1999, when he resumed his cryptic behavior and vanished. In 2000, however, he emerged on the east slope of the Pioneer Mountains along with a female wolf, B66, and the pair began to form a pack. They produced a litter of two pups in 2000 and five in 2001.

At that point in his life, B2 was 10 years old, well over the hill in wolf years. When he was trapped that year and issued a new radio collar, his age showed.

"When we last handled him in 2001, we think he was pretty much blind," Holyan said. "His eyes were all clouded over with cataracts."

Despite his poor eyesight, B2 emerged as the alpha male for the Wildhorse Pack, which roamed the Copper Basin and upper reaches of the Big Lost River, just east of Sun Valley.

"For an animal to be taken care of by his pack for so long, with his cataract problems and obviously not being able to hunt for several years now, he must have been a pretty good wolf for the other wolves to take care of him," Stone said. "We’ve certainly seen other old wolves not be taken care of, and even been hurt or killed by their pack members."

During the summer, the pack’s territory overlapped three livestock allotments on the Challis National Forest, and pack members interacted with cattle on a daily basis throughout the grazing season. In August of 2001, after some of the wolves were implicated in their first livestock depredation, one of B2’s yearling pups was captured and relocated to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area in Northern Idaho.

But the pack was about to fall into even greater disarray. In January 2002, B2’s mate died, perhaps from a kick by an elk. The pack’s behavior grew increasingly erratic, and none of its females ascended to the vacant alpha position. Devoid of pups, the wolves made extensive movements beyond the boundaries of their usual home range.

They traveled south to Carey, west of Hailey into the Smoky Mountains and into the East Fork of the Salmon River valley on the east slope of the White Cloud Mountains.

At one point during their travels, the Wildhorse Pack wolves followed a sheep band in Muldoon Canyon for three nights, picking off 16 sheep before moving on to another location.

"The Wildhorse Pack, presumably because they didn’t have pups that year, kept moving," said Mike Stevens, manager of Lava Lake Land and Livestock. "We lost 16 sheep, but that was the end of it. It was a wake up call for us that we better be ready for the presence of wolves in our area."

After their extensive travels, the wolves returned to their home range in Copper Basin. But without a firmly established hierarchy, the pack structure broke apart, and each wolf began ranging widely.

"B2 kind of just started roaming around and fell into the lap of his newest mate and started over," Holyan said.

The beleaguered B2 was 12 or 13 years old and had a little more kick in him. Last June, B2 and an unfamiliar female wolf were seen at a den site north of Railroad Ridge in the White Cloud Mountains. There, amidst the late-spring snow and spotty spring wildflowers, the two wolves were discovered with four gray pups. The so-called Castle Peak Pack was born, with Chat Chaat, the "Older Brother," at the helm.

Although he was beat up, he continued as the pack’s dominant alpha wolf.

"In his case, I think it was all just fortuitous and by default," Holyan said. "But being the age that he was, he was ripe for a fall eventually."

Nez Perce Tribe Wolf Recovery Leader Curt Mack routinely flies the skies over Idaho to monitor wolf activity using radio telemetry equipment. Express photo by Willy Cook

During a wolf monitoring flight on Feb. 10, biologists picked up the signal from B2’s radio collar, but the typical once-per-second beep had doubled—the cue that the collar had not moved for more than four hours. In wolf monitoring parlance, it’s called a mortality signal.

The subsequent four months cast increasing doubt on his chances for survival. When the biologists found him April 15 along an unnamed tributary of Herd Creek, there was no clear sign about how he died, except the nearby elk carcass.

They cut off his head and left the rest of the carcass behind. His skull will be used for education purposes, and one of his teeth was sent to a lab in Montana to attempt to certifying his age.

"We’re finding out that B2 is one of the oldest wolves on record," Mack said. "Thirteen is very old for a wild wolf."

"Boy, he lived for a long time for a wolf in the wild," Stone agreed. "Average for a wolf is 7 or 8 years. He was definitely a senior citizen for a wolf."

If B2 was 13.8 years old, as biologists estimate, he was not only one of the oldest wolves ever documented. He was undoubtedly the oldest actively reproductive wolf.

The key to his longevity is less clear.

"You’ve just got to have good genes, predisposing you to that, but it’s also about setting up territory in places where there won’t be trouble with humans and plenty of game," Holyan said. "Some of it is luck."


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