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What A Wyoming Wolf Hunt Could Mean for Yellowstone Wolves

Yellowstone wolf dynamics could change considerably when Wyoming fully resumes management of wolves outside the park.

According to the Casper Star Tribune, The Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. ruled in favor of Wyoming after wolves were relisted on the Endangered Species List in 2014. The ruling, announced in March, was finalized last week. From the Tribune:

Tuesday’s decision is what Wyoming wolf managers hope is the last legal battle in a roller-coaster legal process.

“All indications are that this decision shows once again that Wyoming’s plan is a sound management plan,” said Brian Nesvik, chief of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s wildlife division. “They will remain in the hands of state management. For Wyoming this is, again, this is a time for us to celebrate. This is a good thing for Wyoming to be able to take on another wildlife resource.”

No changes were made to Wyoming’s wolf management plan from when the state oversaw the carnivores between 2012 and 2014, Nesvik said.

That means Wyoming will manage the 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs outside of Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Reservation.

Wolves in 85 percent of the state are considered a predator and can be shot on sight, similar to coyotes. They are classified as a trophy animal in the northwest corner of the state and subject to fall hunting seasons. Those seasons have not yet been set, Nesvik said, adding that wolves in those areas cannot be hunted right now. The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission will set those seasons after a public comment period.

Wolves inside Yellowstone National Park will, of course, retain protections from hunting, but hunting outside the park will bring inevitable changes. That’s the conclusion reached by a study published last spring, which linked hunting outside national park boundaries at Yellowstone and Alaska’s Denali to less frequent wolf sightings in each park. And it’s the possibility broached by park scientists in a recent New York Times article. Indeed, wolf biologist Doug Smith, speaking with the Times, while touting Yellowstone as “the best place in the world to view wolves,” acknowledges how hunting at the park’s periphery could change dynamics within:

The sprawling 2.2 million-acre park acts as a laboratory for Dr. Smith and other scientists, who are conducting a long-term study of this very rare population of wolves — unusual because they are neither shot nor trapped. And it turns out a wolf protected from human killing is a very different animal from those that are hunted.

That may change, researchers say, as more hunting is allowed in the states that surround the park.

[…]

Experts say that the gray wolf is no longer in danger of being completely wiped out by hunting. Their extirpation by the 1920s or so was caused by unregulated killing.

But expanding the hunt for wolves around the edges of the park poses several issues at Yellowstone Park, where the management protects wildlife so people can watch and study it.

“What will hunting wolves nearby do to that?” Dr. Smith asked.

Wolf watching is a popular Yellowstone activity and a key part of Yellowstone’s economic reality. Indeed, the Times estimates wolf watching generates $35 million for the regional economy, which is a significant part of Yellowstone’s consistent, nine-figure economic impact.

Such a disruption (wolves acting more cautious toward people, even within park boundaries) could prove costly, similar to the anxiety acknowledged by Superintendent Dan Wenk when discussing the possibility of Yellowstone-area grizzly bears being delisted from the Endangered Species List. Smith acknowledges a likewise possibility for disruption. From the Times:

A team of up to 20 researchers and volunteers, sitting on a hilltop with spotting scopes or peering down from aircraft, witness the daily goings-on year-round. Camera traps record remote wolf activity. And because they have lived without the threat of being shot and with near daily tourist traffic — the wolves ignore the researchers and are readily observed.

As a result, a complex and in some cases unprecedented portrait of wolves is emerging.

For example, protected wolves regard humans very differently. “Wolf hunters talk about seeing a pack of park wolves outside the boundary, and being able to pick the one they want,” Dr. Smith said. “They just stand there and have no fear.”

While all wolves are very social with a hierarchy, those pack rules are often corrupted when human hunting enters the picture. In the park, researchers are getting a thorough look at pure wolf social dynamics — within and between packs.

For the first time, pack longevity has been studied in depth, the life span of a pack is eight to 10 years in the park. One pack called the Druid is more than 20 years old. Hunted wolf packs, on the other hand, often last just two or three years. When one or two of the wolves are shot or trapped, members of the pack often scatter and reform with different members.

Indeed, the recently killed white wolf from Yellowstone’s Canyon Pack lived to be 12 ½ years old, which is old compared to the lifespan of most Yellowstone wolves (five years) and ancient compared to non-park wolves (2 ½ years).

Ranchers outside Yellowstone have become more vocal in their calls for a wolf hunt. Conservationists and environmentalists are, naturally, aghast. Indeed, it was a coalition of conservation and environmental groups that first brought suit against Wyoming over wolf hunting.

According to the Times, some biologists, even those who helped with the 1995 Yellowstone reintroduction project, acknowledge that hunting is sometimes a “legitimate” policy:

Some biologists say there are legitimate reasons to allow hunting, perhaps most important to placate residents. “A little blood satisfies a lot of anger,” said Ed Bangs, a retired Fish and Wildlife biologist who led the effort to restore wolves to the northern Rockies.

“The wolf most likely to get harvested by a hunter is one that is in open areas with road access,” the interface between ranches and wild land, Dr. Bangs said. “So hunters are removing the animals with the highest probability of getting in trouble with livestock.”

About Sean Reichard

Sean Reichard is the editor of Yellowstone Insider and author of Yellowstone Insider For Families 2017.

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