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College instructor tracks wolves

| July 20, 2005 12:00 AM

By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter

The cabin sits just off U.S. Highway 2 amid a few trees. Pickup trucks rumble by on a Forest Service dirt road, and while that doesn't faze the contented cows grazing in an adjoining pasture it occasionally plays havoc with Jay Mallonee's powerful computer.

The machine sits between snowshoes and a pair of cross-country skis in the spare one-room cabin with loft. Two hummingbird nests and several feathers from large birds add to the incongruity. There are casts of wolf prints on a table.

The computer is as important to the wolf biologist as his four-wheel-drive truck or the muscle-powered means of travel he uses during winter to make his daily rounds through the Kootenai National Forest.

Mallonee studies wolves.

Specifically, he researches the nine-member Fishtrap pack that lives in a 250-square-mile area between Libby and Kalispell.

"They go everywhere," Mallonee said. "Wolves are close to people and close to cattle. And nobody knows."

He's been studying the pack for five years, and has collected detailed data of three collared pack members via radio telemetry equipment for the past two years. The information is all fed into the computer. Now, by calling up a map of the pack's home territory, Mallonee can show movement corridors where scat or footprints were seen, where he pinpointed locations by radio collar, or where he found

wolves by howling back and forth with them.

"I have a code for everywhere I go," he said.

His conclusions are startling.Instead of showing that wolves

perform activities as a pack a high percentage of the time, which most researchers contend, Mallonee's study shows the Fishtrap pack does that much less than half the time.

"No one ever perceived wolves this way," he said. "It blatantly goes against what people believe. Science assumes they always do everything

together."

The conclusions form the basis of a paper he is writing for a professional journal. He is wary of how other wolf biologists will receive it, since his data knocks the supports from conclusions others have made — conclusions that, over time, have formed the accepted wisdom about wolves.

A maverick who once jokingly called himself a "little forest gnome," Mallonee believes researchers from federal and state agencies simply don't gather enough data. He also criticizes counting techniques that, he says, involve flying over the forest to spot collared wolves and extrapolating the number of wolves in a given area through a mathematical formula.

"You have to bust your ass to know these animals," he said. "If you want to know about wolves you have to be on the ground. You can't do it from an airplane."

Mallonee, 48, has an impressive academic background which prevents him from being dismissed as just another person with romantic ideals about wolves. He has a master's degree in neurobiology and animal behavior. He has taught for the University of California-Santa Barbara, and conducted wolf research classes in Lincoln County for San Francisco State for eight years before moving here in 1999 to be near his research topic year-round.

He drives through the wolves' territory at least 300 days a year, averaging about 70 miles a day. Mallonee, who formerly studied summering gray whales and was published on that topic in the Canadian Journal of Zoology, currently teaches science classes at the Lincoln County Campus of Flathead Valley Community College.

LCC director Pat Pezzelle said Mallonee encourages students to look at things in unfamiliar, often uncomfortable ways.

"He challenges students," Pezzelle said. "One of the things I admire about him is his passion for field work. As an instructor he has one foot planted in real world research and the other in academia."

Mallonee grew up in a large city where wild animals were found only in books or on cable television nature programs. He knew he wanted to be a biologist when he was 7 years old, and never wavered from that dream.

Why was he fascinated with animals as an urban boy?

"Because they were missing," he said.

Now his bookcases — wood planks with cement blocks — are crammed with books about whales, dolphins, porpoises and wolves, including "The Ninemile Wolves" by Yaak resident Rick Bass.

Mallonee spent several years researching gray whales, bottlenose dolphins, harbor porpoise, Dall's porpoise and orcas from California to the Bering Sea.

After working at Wolf Haven in Washington state, he narrowed his focus to wolves.

"If you want to do it right, you have to do it 100 percent," Mallonee said. "I had to choose between wolves and whales."

He takes his 15-year-old Australian shepherd and greyhound mix named "Timber" with him on wolf research jaunts. The dog is deaf and is blind in one eye, and her owner tends to her with obvious love.

"One of the reasons I moved to Montana was to give her a better life," he said.

A driving force behind Mallonee's work is his desire to educate people about wolves. That, he hopes, will reduce what he considers bigotry and hatred against the animals.

Mallonee perseveres with his lonely calling at more than small economic sacrifice. His income teaching courses at LCC must be supplemented with part-time work at a Libby movie rental shop. He's also tapping into an inheritance fund from his mother, who is still alive.

"I always knew what I wanted to do," Mallonee said. "My problem is figuring out how to do it. This is worse than when I was in college. I have no (economic) future."

But he has extensive wolf data, and lots of it shows up on his Web site www.wolfandwildlifestudies.com. Project HOWL — Helping our Wolves Live — includes updates about the Fishtrap pack.

He wrote on the Web site, "Project HOWL is dedicated to finding out how wolves really behave and to promote wolf conservation through the integration of research and public education."

Among his past research projects is a documentation of traumatic stress displayed by a wild wolf placed into captivity. Mallonee believes wolves are traumatized in the wild, too, as evidenced by film and tape of airplanes running the animals to near exhaustion.

One of the videos in his home shows a wolf harassed by an airplane and becoming so weary that it finally turns to face the plane, as though willing to take a last desperate stand against its tormentor.

He wonders what has provoked such aggression against wolves throughout history.

"There's something about these wild dogs running through the woods that upsets people," Mallonee said. "It's been that way for 500 years."