Wolves roaming Yellowstone National Park don't discriminate between park drainages, meadows, and woods and those features in the national forests rimming the park. They head where the scent takes them, and when they do, they sometimes find themselves in the gunsights of hunters.
Such was the case recently for seven wolves whose lives came to an end beyond Yellowstone's borders.
Two of the wolves didn't den in Yellowstone or spend time there, according to park biologists, though the five others were members of packs that routinely roam the park. All were wearing collars park biologists had fitted them with at one time to gather data on their travels.
The loss of the wolves has conservationists worried that hunting in the states that surround Yellowstone -- Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming -- could negatively impact the park's wolf population, currently estimated at 88 individuals if not carefully managed.
"It was one thing when the wolves being hunted were in distant reaches of Idaho and Montana (and now Wyoming) where livestock predation has been an issue," said Jeff Welsch, communications director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "Among the wolves taken recently were animals from the three most-photographed, most-popular, and best-known packs in Yellowstone: the Mollies, Blacktail Plateau and Lamar Canyon packs."
The outrage over the dead wolves is global, according to Kim Bean of Wolves of the Rockies, a Montana-based group organized solely to "protect and defend" wolves in the Rocky Mountains.
“Those are some pretty beloved wolves from around the world," she said Friday, noting that her organization has taken calls from people in Europe, the Netherlands, and Australia upset over the killings.
"They're outraged by it all. People who come over here for Yellowstone and the wolves and the wildlife," Ms. Bean said. "The main thing they show up in the park for is the wildlife.”
Indeed, Yellowstone's wolf packs, along with providing a measure of ecological balance for the park, have turned into an economic engine for communities surrounding Yellowstone. According to the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, "people from around the world come to Yellowstone and spend $35.5 million annually solely to see wolves."
"Some of these (killed) wolves were from some of the park’s most viewed and popular packs. At least from the initial reports that we have about which packs these wolves come from," said Chris Colligan, the Coalition's wildlife advocate in Wyoming.
A great concern is that hunters perhaps are specifically targeting wolves wearing collars. In some cases those animals might be the pack's alphas, and by taking them out of the equation the entire pack possibly could be disrupted.
"It’s become a target. It’s very obvious that hunters are targeting collared wolves," maintained Ms. Bean.
One of those wolves killed, 823F, was a member of the newly formed Junction Butte Pack and the only one of that pack to be killed, she said. “She was the one wolf killed out of ten wolves. It is a known statement that’s thrown around all the time by the anti-wolf crowd, that it is a prize to get a collared wolf."
Yellowstone officials, while staying abreast of the story, are not proclaiming the downfall of the park's wolves because of the loss of seven animals. David Hallac, a biologist who is chief of Yellowstone's Center for Resources, said it was always anticipated that some park wolves would head out of Yellowstone and be taken by hunters.
“I don’t think it's surprising that some of the animals have been harvested, and it’s not something that we think at this point will have a significant impact on the population," Mr. Hallac said Friday.
Too, he said, the actual number of Yellowstone wolves killed by hunters outside the park's borders could be higher than the seven recently killed.
"The only reason we knew they were harvested was because they had collars on," he said. "We could track the Mollies’ Pack and we might see one or two or three fewer wolves than the last time we saw tracked them. We don’t know if we’re seeing fewer wolves because they were killed by other wolves or were harvested by hunters. It’s really hard to make those determinations.”
Is A Buffer Zone Needed?
At Wolves of the Rockies, Ms. Bean said her group would like to see a buffer of some size around the park. How big, however, hasn't been figured out.
“You can’t save everything," she said. But at the same time, she continued, certain areas around Yellowstone are vital to the sustainability of the packs, especially on the northern range, and they need extra protection.
At the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, meanwhile, the staff thought it would be better to manage the situation through hunting seasons and quotas on the state lands nearest Yellowstone. Montana officials did just that after Yellowstone's Cottonwood Creek Pack was pretty much wiped out by hunters in 2009.
The pack, which had a home base just inside the park's northern border, roamed north and onto Montana's Buffalo Plateau. While the pack's alpha female, a big black animal known as "527," might simply have been leading her 10-member pack in search of an easy meal from the gut piles elk hunters leave behind, that excursion coincided with Montana's first official wolf season in decades.
"The Cottonwoods were destroyed," Louisa Willcox, a senior wildlife advocate in the Natural Resource Defense Council's Montana office, recalled at the time. "There may have been a straggler or two and they went off in the wilderness and they were never heard from again, but for all intents and purposes that pack was wrecked by the hunt that occurred in Montana in the opening days of the hunting season.”
In response, Montana wildlife officials lowered to three the quota of wolves that could be taken in that area of the state.
“I think the data show us that those areas aren’t large enough," said Mr. Colligan, suggesting that Montana officials should again rethink hunting and trapping quotas in areas closest to the park.
“From our perspective, this trapping or shooting with a firearm is harvest. So I don’t know that we necessary have any concerns over trapping," he said. “We’re poised to avoid those things (impacts to the wolf population) because we have good communications with the surrounding states. Trapping is just another form of harvest, and so far we don’t have any concerns.