Libby man conducting research on wolf pack
By Jim Mann
The Daily Inter Lake
LIBBY – Jay Mallonee knows where the wolves will be.
His pickup, with “WLFINDR” license plates, bumps and bounces along winding
forest roads east of Libby. Then the radio receiver at his side picks up
the steady beeps of a wolf’s radio collar. He’s getting close.
Eventually, Mallonee is standing on an indistinct stretch of road lined
with thick timber. Moving a hand-held antenna back and forth, he dials in
on the signal and takes compass bearings to narrow the location of the
“All three of them are here,” he said, referring to the three members of
the Fishtrap Pack that are fitted with government radio collars. The
wolves are about a mile away, in a densely forested valley where they
After studying them for three years, the wolves have become “predictable
to a point” for Mallonee, who is conducting what he says is the only
independent wolf research project in Montana.
“The bottom line is we don’t know that much about wolves, and the wolves
of Northwest Montana are pretty much unknown,” said Mallonee, whose work
has been self-financed, primarily through work as a science teacher at the
community college in Libby and his job at a local video store.
While there has been extensive research on wolves around the world,
Mallonee said that the collective body of knowledge is not specific to
wolves in Northwest Montana. He contends that his research will be unique
in that it is a long-term project, focusing on wolves in an area where
there has been little research.
“If people tell me that they think they know a wolf pack works out here,
I’d be amazed,” Mallonee said. “They simply don’t know.”
Mallonee has identified the pack’s 240-square-mile territory and how the
the wolves use it at different times of year. He has located the wolves’
den site, has counted their numbers from year to year, and has figured out
many of their travel routes and rendezvous sites.
He has recorded their howls to study their vocalization patterns.
Mallonee said he has gone out nearly every day for the last three years,
spending at least a couple of hours searching for the wolves or traces
they’ve left behind.
After all that work, he has managed to actually see the wolves only a
handful of times, largely because of the dense forest cover in which they
live in and because Mallonee intentionally distances himself from the
“They are very elusive,” he said. “And they are horribly difficult to
Before coming to Libby, Mallonee, 47, had previously done research on
marine mammals in the Bering Sea, studied a wolf in captivity for three
years, and done wolf field studies with students from the University of
California, Santa Barbara, for 13 years.
His work with the Fishtrap Pack is not officially sanctioned by government
wildlife agencies, but he has developed an informal working relationship
with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Joe Fontaine, the agency’s wolf recovery coordinator for Montana, said
Mallonee is a credible and ethical researcher whose work was considered an
asset by Tom Meyer, a federal wolf biologist who was based in Kalispell
until he took another job earlier this year.
Fontaine anticipates, however, that Mallonee will need to develop a
relationship with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks as the federal
government hands over management of Northwest Montana’s wolves to the
And state officials may insist that Mallonee have a more formal
arrangement, possibly through some form of research permit.
Mallonee said he wants to work with the state. But he is concerned that
state wardens and other officials in the field may know little about
wolves, and that they may have little time to work on wolf management.
He said he thinks state officials would be wise to make use of the
information he has gathered on the pack.
Eventually, Mallonee expects a clear picture of the pack to emerge that
will be quite different from studies done on other wolves.
Yellowstone National Park’s Druid Peak Pack has been extensively studied,
but to Mallonee, that research is irrelevant to wolves in Northwest
“That’s Yellowstone. This isn’t Yellowstone,” he said. “It’s way different
Although they do leave the national park, Yellowstone wolves mostly roam
within a protected area with a different prey base.
“This is a huge interface between humans and wolves,” Mallonee said. “It
is a totally different context.”
And for Mallonee, working with local residents is as important as studying
the Fishtrap Pack.
“If I’m going to do this kind of research, I’m going to have to work with
people who hate wolves,” he said.
While there are plenty of people in the area who don’t like wolves,
Mallonee said there are plenty of people who are willing to work with him.
Mallonee’s research got under way soon after the Fishtrap Pack made itself
known in 2001 by killing two llamas in the McGinnis Meadows area,
incidents that triggered hostile reactions from many residents in the
Mallonee said he has become good friends with the rancher whose llamas
were killed. The rancher has since kept his remaining llama closer to the
ranch, rather than letting it range on public lands.
Mallonee lets the rancher know when the wolves are near so other
precautions can be taken.
There have been no documented kills of domestic animals by the pack since
“The remarkable thing is how many times a year these predators meet these
range cattle and nothing happens,” he said.
Mallonee said he is frequently asked by hunters with anti-wolf views how
much wildlife the Fishtrap Pack kills.
“If they take out less than 100 deer a year, that’s next to nothing”
compared to the overall deer population, he said. Far less frequently,
they kill elk or moose, usually animals that are young or crippled.
People often contend that the area’s wolf numbers will mushroom. But
Mallonee said that’s not likely to happen because the pack’s size
fluctuates, and the pack will aggressively defend its territory from
Last year, the pack had six adults and seven pups. This year it had six
adults, and Mallonee believes there are only three pups.
Mallonee said some locals don’t necessarily resent wolves as much as they
do the government and wolf management policies that come from Helena and
“I get told lots of things because I don’t work for the government,” he
Mallonee said he thinks government officials need to be far more engaged
with the public in areas where there are wolves.
“Killing one-third of your wolves every year is not management, but that’s
what’s happening,” said Mallonee, who is convinced that wolf managers can
do more to head off conflicts between wolves and humans.
More information on Mallonee’s research is available on the Internet at: