Biologist changing way wolves are tracked

Photo submitted Dave Ausband, who joined the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in May as a research biologist specializing in wolves and other carnivores, poses with a tranquilized wolf. Ausband will help the department shift from monitoring Idaho's wolf population with radio collars to using scat and remote cameras.

COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho — Dave Ausband has been given the job of implementing a new and more accurate approach to tracking and counting wolves in Idaho.

The effort should produce the best estimate of the state’s wolf population ever. Biologists believe many wolves go uncounted using traditional means such as radio collars.

After this winter, the state Department of Fish and Game plans to move away from the use of radio collars as its chief tool for monitoring wolves.

Ausband said radio collars may retain a limited role in tracking wolves where conflicts are reported with livestock, but the broader program will shift toward DNA analysis of wolf scat and a network of roughly 200 remote trail cameras scattered throughout Idaho. The cameras will cover Eastern Idaho and “big chunks” of the Frank Church wilderness that have been missed by collaring. They should also help Ausband monitor cougars and black bears.

Fish and Game hired Ausband, 41, in May as a research wildlife biologist, giving his position a new focus on large carnivores, and a special emphasis on wolves.

Ausband explained it’s costly to capture and collar wolves, and using collars has become too labor-intensive for tracking the Idaho wolf population of at least 770 animals.

There are currently 88 collared wolves in Idaho.

“We don’t collar anywhere near all of the packs in Idaho, which means there are known big holes in our map,” Ausband said.

The University of Idaho will conduct the DNA analysis of wolf scat, which should provide Fish and Game biologists with “fingerprints” to assess the numbers of breeding females, litter sizes, sex, population trends and other elusive data.

Lisette Waits, head of UI’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Sciences, said DNA from fecal samples will also be matched against saliva on livestock carcasses to determine which individual wolves are responsible for depredations, and against DNA of harvested wolves to estimate harvest rates.

Waits, who has been working on DNA analysis of scat and hair since 2007, said they are “accurate and cost-effective approaches” for understanding wolf populations.

Ausband has created a predictive model to narrow possible locations of wolf rendezvous sites, where wolves gather in large concentrations with their pups. The model should reduce the search area by 90 percent for the Fish and Game interns and part-time employees who will seek out rendezvous sites and scat.

Ausband, originally from Pennsylvania, has spent the past nine years studying how to better monitor wolves, including Idaho packs, for the University of Montana and will soon complete his doctoral thesis analyzing the effects of hunts on wolves.

Jim Hayden, a Fish and Game regional wildlife manager, said the state will spend in excess of $400,000 this year on wolf management, with federal dollars and matching funds from Idaho hunting licenses and firearms and ammunition taxes. He hopes Ausband’s approach may prove to be cheaper and more effective, given that additional federal funding for managing wolves as an endangered species is no longer available to the state.

“I think it will be a fascinating project — very useful not just to Idaho, but to anybody who manages wolves,” Hayden said. “I think it will help us refine our management.”

Dave Ausband

Age: 41

Hometown: Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

Position: Research wildlife biologist specializing in carnivores

Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees and is completing a Ph.D. in wildlife biology at the University of Montana

Family: Wife, Liz, and a 9-year-old son, Sam

Innovation: Developing a predictive model to locate wolf rendezvous sites throughout Idaho and helping the department move away from radio collaring as its primary means of monitoring wolves in favor of scat analysis and remote trail cameras.

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