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OFFICIALS FEAR WOLF WAS POACHED IN A BLOW TO REINTRODUCTION EFFORTS

SHARE OFFICIALS FEAR WOLF WAS POACHED IN A BLOW TO REINTRODUCTION EFFORTS

An endangered female gray wolf with pups apparently has been illegally killed, setting back efforts to re-establish the species in the West, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reported.

"It's really disappointing. We feel pretty bad about it," said Steve Fritts, Northern Rocky Mountain wolf coordinator for the agency.On July 4, a fisherman found the cut and smashed radio collar the wolf had been outfitted with in Butler Creek in Ninemile Valley of the Lolo National Forest, 25 miles from Missoula. The wolf's carcass has not been found, Fritts said.

The smokey black 4-year-old had been denning with a male and caring for at least three pups that were born this spring, but the fate of the male and the pups is unknown, said government biologist Joe Fontaine.

"If the male is around and is still feeding the pups they'll probably be all right."

About 40 wolves are believed to be living in Montana, including several in packs that wander back and forth across the Canadian border around Glacier National Park.

Poaching, which is a federal crime punishable by one year in prison and a $20,000 fine, has harmed efforts to re-establish the wolves and to eventually remove them from the endangered species list.

"What this has done is reduced the reproductive capabilities of that pack by killing that female," Fointaine said.

The wolf was part of a pack that was killing livestock last fall, prompting officials to capture her, collar her and relocate her to Glacier Park. However, she immediately moved south to Ninemile Valley and found a mate.

"She had been just as good as gold since then," Fontaine said.

Biologists are virtually certain the wolf was poached, since the only animal likely to attack a wolf is a grizzly bear and there are no grizzlies in the Ninemile Valley.

"Where the collar was found was in the general vicinity of the den site," Fontaine said. "If she was thrown in the creek all the evidence could have been washed downstream."

Ranchers, many of whom oppose efforts to re-establish wolf populations in the West, have been very cooperative in the investigation of the killing, Fontaine said.

The government is offering a reward for information about the killing.