A wolf expert from Wisconsin said last week that wolves need open space without roads and have been unable to survive in the Midwest when roads exceed one mile of road per square mile of habitat.
"That is the threshold, the point where wolf populations will begin collapsing," said Dick Thiel, keynote speaker at the third annual Montana Wolf Working Group meeting.That is the same density established by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee as the standard required for grizzly bear recovery in the northern Rockies. There is no standard in the Rockies for wolves.
Thiel, a biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said timberwolves in Wisconsin in the early 1980s numbered 25 to 30 but bottomed out at 15 in the mid-80s. Wisconsin wolves have now rebounded to 31 in number.
Thiel noted that wolves tend to use roads and trails that are not often used by humans.
"Wolf mortality is much more extensive in areas accessible to humans," he said.
Thiel said 83 percent of wolf mortality in Wisconsin is human-caused, with 50 percent of the human-caused deaths from shooting.
He said road building brings people much closer to wolves and leaves wolves with less room to escape human activity.
"Wolves are capable of adjusting to human activity, provided there is room for them to do that," said Thiel. "After that, they start dying.'
Joe Fontaine, head of the Montana wolf-recovery program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in an interview he does not foresee restricting roads to less than the existing densities, provided illegal wolf kills in the state do not increase.
"Right now, attitudes in Montana toward wolf recovery are good," commented Fontaine. "We have no reason at this point to restrict access.
"The Forest Service management of road density for ungulates and grizzly bears is also good management for wolves."
Fontaine said that should further road restriction be required, it would likely be mandated by Congress.