The news raced across cyberspace in a flash: Yellowstone's "rock star" of a wolf had been killed by a Wyoming hunter.
The wolf in question, 832F, was doing what wolves do -- roaming the landscape, probably in search of a meal -- when she was shot just beyond Yellowstone National Park's eastern border on December 6. The kill was legitimate under Wyoming's hunting regulations, which Interior Secretary Ken Salazar had cleared the way for earlier this year in an agreement he made with Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead.
While many were disgusted with that agreement, it's a done deal unless overturned in court.
The outrage over 832's death was palpable and, as media have been known to do, overdone. The headlines alone were deafening:
Yellowstone's 'Rock Star' Wolf Killed
Most Famous Wolf Shot Outside Yellowstone: 832F Was A Rock Star For Animal Watchers
World's Most Famous Wolf Shot and Killed Outside Yellowstone
And those were just the very first that popped up during an Internet search. Some activist groups seized on the wolf's death, hoping it would prod readers to urge Congress to create no-hunting zones around Yellowstone. Montana officials didn't need any urging, reading the bad PR that hunting wolves that left Yellowstone delivered, and decided earlier this week to institute a temporary ban in areas just north of the park.
Yet one has to wonder why such a media storm was raised in the wake of 832F's death, but not after the killings earlier this year of seven others wolves that found themselves in the gunsights of hunters. Or that Grand Teton National Park grizzly bear shot and killed by elk hunters who claimed self-defense? One of the immediate concerns there was that No. 399, or No. 610, two well-known grizzly sows, might have been the ill-fated bear.
Would 832F been placed on such a pedestal if she had died of natural causes, been hit by a vehicle, or been killed by another pack?
That seemingly anthropogenic qualities are bestowed upon these charismatic megafauna is a misguided attempt to make them something they are not. They are, quite simply, wild animals. And in the most recent case of 832F, simply doing what wild wolves do when she found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her death should be no more or less noteworthy than the deaths of those seven other wolves, or that Grand Teton grizzly. They all were important to the landscape.
Is it disappointing? No doubt for some. The wolf recovery program has turned into an economic engine, and wolf-watching generates an estimated $35 million a year for nearby communities.
But the idea behind Yellowstone's recovery plan was to restore some semblance of a wild kingdom in the park, not to build an open air zoo that would become an economic engine.
For years the lack of this apex predator had allowed Yellowstone's elk herds to skyrocket beyond the landscape's natural carrying capacity. Elk were overbrowsing the Northern Range, something that not only impacted beavers by wiping out stands of willow, but which also weakened the herd overall and contributed to high winter-kill rates.
From the very beginning the hope was that the Canadian wolves brought into Yellowstone would eventually call it home, and create a stable population that would help provide needed balance to the prey-predator scenario in Yellowstone. And along with that hope was the understanding that a successful recovery program could lead to removal of Endangered Species Act protection of the park wolves.
And that's what happened.
The Pain Of Success
The recovery program's hoped for success also came with the understanding that wolves would die if they left Yellowstone. At the same time, a healthy Yellowstone wolf population meant wolves would die inside the park, victims of intraspecific competition.
Park biologists, while agreeing that killing wolves wearing radio collars hampers their research, see no long-term harm to Yellowstone's wolf population from this year's hunting tally.
"Wolves kill other wolves, and alpha males will come in and kill other alpha males. These things happen naturally. The real question is, from a bigger scale view, what are the impacts of that to the Yellowstone population?," said Dave Hallac, chief of the Yellowstone Center for Resources. "Does it mean an end to wolves in the park? No."
832F gained her "rock star" tag because she lived in the Lamar Valley, which is wolf central for park visitors, and was an adept hunter. But spend any amount of time along the Lamar River Road in spring and early summer, and again in fall, and you'll see wolves, some of which you might grow attached to if you watch them for hours on end and which you might name.
In the end, though, 832F was one of more than 80 wolves that carved their home territories into Yellowstone. Biologically, her death creates a void, as in her six years she whelped three litters. Yet that void will be filled by another alpha female and life will go on.
Her "rock star" status will be forgotten, as was that of 302M, a black male dubbed Casanova by some who followed his 9-and-a-half-year life, and even the entire Druid Peak Pack once considered "the most closely watched and photographed wolf pack in the world."
Rather than turning wildlife into "rock stars," push for officials in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho to stand up for the science behind the wolf recovery program and institute regulations that would protect the predators in some sort of buffer zone around the park. And/or, push to see it made illegal to kill a wolf wearing a collar biologists fitted around its neck; hunters today with their powerful scopes should be able to spot the collar when they're drawing down on a wolf.
Let's not do disservice to Yellowstone's wolf recovery program by annointing individual wolves with such titles. Let's accept them all for what they are -- wild things -- and revel in their existence. Every one of them.