A record number of Yellowstone wolves have been killed. Conservationists are worried
This winter saw the most wolves from Yellowstone National Park killed in about a century. That's because states neighboring the park changed hunting rules in an effort to reduce the animals' numbers. At the same time, wolf biologists inside the park are finding out what losing the animals means.
"This was the winter of my discontent," Yellowstone National Park senior wolf biologist Doug Smith says while driving over a washboarded dirt road near the park's northern border.
"The park line's right over here, and that's where a lot of the controversy occurred," he says, gesturing to the unmarked edge of the park just in front of us.
There's no wolf hunting inside the park itself, but when wolves set paw over the boundary into Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, they're fair game, at least during the hunting seasons that states are allowed to establish. This season, hunters killed 25 wolves — about 20% of the park's population. Smith says the wolf population varies throughout the year. Right now, he estimates the population is at something of a low point — likely numbering in the 80s.
Today, Smith's hoping to track a wolf that wears a radio collar. Over the course of his research team's 27 years studying the canines in Yellowstone, they've captured and collared more than 500 wolves — what Smith says is one of the largest wolf datasets in the world.
Hopping out of his car, he unfolds an antenna and begins to gesture it around, eyes on the distant hills. He thinks he hears a signal, but ... "I've radio-tracked so much in my life you get this thing called ghost beeps," he says. "You think you hear a beep and you don't."
Wolves were hunted to near-extinction as the country was colonized. The last pack of Yellowstone wolves was killed in 1926. They were reintroduced to the park in the mid-1990s, and along with mountain lions and grizzly bears, they've made a comeback.
"That's a really cool thing to say in this day and age when most environmental news is bad. Yellowstone is as good as it's ever been, and a big part of that is we've restored the ecosystem and we've done it with the toothy big carnivores," Smith says. "All of them."
Federal protections for wolves were dropped about a decade ago, and it became legal to hunt limited numbers of them. Now, saying they have come back too strong, Montana and Idaho changed hunting rules to reduce wolf populations in both states. Montana now allows night hunting, trap baiting and neck snares, among other measures. Idaho eliminated limits on how many wolves that hunters could kill. There, it's now legal to shoot them from ATVs and snowmobiles.
Suddenly, Smith gets a signal. Faint beeps grow louder.
"This wolf's around — how do ya like that?"
He says he's detecting a lone wolf. It's likely young, like most wolves in the park. And it's out of sight, but from the beeps he's getting, Smith says it's a mile, maybe a mile and a half in the distance.
As the number of wolf deaths climbed in December, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly wrote Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte asking him to suspend the hunting season. His request fell on deaf ears. Nearly a year before, Gianforte himself had killed a collared wolf from the park (legally, although he was cited for having failed to complete a required trapper education course). In a press conference last year, Gianforte said trapping is an important part of managing species.
"It was a tremendous honor to be able to harvest a wolf here in Montana," he said.
Among measures passed last year meant to increase wolf mortality in the state, Montana dropped limits on how many of the canines can be killed in certain areas bordering Yellowstone. The total number killed in those areas shot up from four or fewer a year over the last decade to 19 this season.
After an outcry from conservation groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now evaluating whether Endangered Species Act protections should be returned to wolves in the Northern Rockies.
Trappers and hunters
"There's a lot of panic among people when there doesn't need to be," says Brian Stoner. He's a trapper and an organizer of the Montana Trappers' Association annual fur auction, where I met him. The event was about an hour north of Yellowstone, and pelts from coyotes, foxes, bobcats and more were streaming through the doors and piling up on long, fold-out tables. In the hours to come, fur will fill the fairground hall.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we had a wolf or two that showed up by tomorrow," he said.
As he walked me through the tables, he said putting a value on each pelt is as much an art as a science. He used a bobcat pelt as an example.
"You'll notice it has some spots in here kind of in the center of the belly, but it gets a little weakened down here," he said.
For Stoner, wildlife is livelihood. It's also a lot more than that. He said that trappers have a unique relationship with animals that lots of outsiders don't understand and that they would not support rules that would cause extinction. He said what motivates him is the love of the animals.
"While I do go out there with the intent of harvesting these animals and I know that I'm killing them, I'm removing them from the population, I also know the dynamics of these animals," he said. "I know that they're able to breed, able to replenish. The last thing I want to do is trap the last of anything. I want my kids, my grandkids, I want future generations to be able to do this."
When it comes to wolves, he said harvest numbers this year are right on par with years past. At least, he says, if you are looking at the state as a whole.
"The only thing that is changing is the fact that that the wolves that are in the Yellowstone region, they got harvested more so than they have in the past," he said.
While this was a record-setting year for Yellowstone-area wolf deaths, the number of wolves killed in Montana overall was the lowest it's been since 2017, at 273 statewide.
Stoner said wolf populations bounce back quickly and the state sets guidelines based on science and provides backstops if the hunt gets out of hand. This season, Montana closed wolf hunting in the region around Yellowstone in February, about a month ahead of schedule.
So, concerns about too many Yellowstone are wolves being killed? "I think it's a lot of hoopla about nothing," he said.
Science in the park
Back near the park boundary, a tiny airplane about the size of a motorcycle with wings glides onto a small runway, while elk mill about nearby. That plane — a wildlife tracking aircraft called a Super Cub, meant to fly low and slow — is part of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, research in the park that's been going on for more than 25 years.
"That's the beauty of the Wolf Project, is that we've been getting these counts for over 25 years now, which is longer than I've been alive," says Maddy Jackson, a research technician.
The research focuses on what, when and where wolves are eating, as in bison, elk and deer. Most days, Jackson is on the "cluster crew" that hike out to areas where wolves are spending a lot of time to document the animals they're killing and scavenging. But today, she'll be in the plane, tracking the wolves from the air.
Jackson and the pilot fold themselves into the plane and take off. For the next three hours, they'll zigzag over the park, covering about 300 miles. They hope to see somewhere in the order of 60 wolves.
Yellowstone biologist Doug Smith, who leads the project, says wolf populations do recover fast, and this year's hunt doesn't mean the park's wolves are going extinct. But this many wolf deaths also disrupts the animals' deeper, social dynamics.
"This winter, what we experienced was catastrophic mortality," Smith says.
Catastrophic, he says, because wildlife research as long-running as the wolf project is rare but vital to understanding ecosystems. Yellowstone is a natural laboratory for studying wolves. He said there are lots of other studies that focus on wolf populations that are impacted by hunters. But here in Yellowstone, the population is unique in that it's both easy to observe and very nearly unimpacted by hunters and humans. Or at least, that had been the case.
"Our claim to fame with Wolf Research was we have the best data in the world in an unexploited-by-humans population," Smith says. "We don't have that now. And that's, I think, a shame and a tragedy."
In addition to tracking wolves by plane and with the cluster crew, Smith's team also has one other way of gathering data. He parks in a pullout and introduces me to Taylor Bland and Jeremy Sunder Raj, members of the ground crew. Like private eyes on a marathon stakeout, they're out from dawn to dusk, watching wolves from the road.
"We're all pretty exhausted, but we get to see pretty good behavior, so makes for good watching," Bland says.
The two take out spotting scopes and angle them toward a patch of trees in the distance. They scan the sage-dominated landscape for signs of movement and life. But no luck.
When they do get wolves in their sights, Bland, Sunder Raj and other members of the ground crew are busy interacting with tourists — who spend more than an estimated $30 million a year wolf-watching around Yellowstone — and also documenting what they see. They draw maps and record when the wolves are traveling, hunting, sleeping and more. Sunder Raj says all of the flights, the cluster crews and the documenting they're doing on the ground "has basically allowed us to learn basically more in the last 27 years about wolves than almost all of the other studies leading up to that."
The baseline data they gather can help answer questions about how to protect livestock from wolves and game animals that both draw tourists and provide food for local hunters.
"That's the flashpoint for wolves almost everywhere," Doug Smith says. "If we know kind of the base rates of what wolves do to elk, bison and deer, managers outside of national parks can use that to help make decisions about what they're doing."
Smith says the very thing that makes Yellowstone wolves unique makes them particularly vulnerable to hunting. Used to seeing humans lining the roads of the park, they don't exactly hide from people. He says one wolf this year was shot just 40 meters, or 130 feet, from the park line.
Smith said wolf hunting seasons like this one can't become annual events; hunting can help build tolerance for wolves. But he said they also need places like Yellowstone.
"So wolves can be wolves and nature can be nature."