BILLINGS, Mont. Twenty of Yellowstone National Park’s famous gray wolves roamed the park and were shot by hunters in recent months – the most killed by hunting in a single season since the predators were reintroduced to the region more than 25 years ago, according to park officials.
Fifteen wolves were shot after roaming the park’s northern border with Montana, according to figures released to The Associated Press. Another five died in Idaho and Wyoming.
Park officials said in a statement to the AP that the deaths mark “a significant setback for the species’ long-term viability and for wolf research.”
One package – the Phantom Lake Pack – is now considered “eliminated” after most or all of its members were killed over a two-month period beginning in October, according to the park.
An estimated 94 wolves remain in Yellowstone. But with months left in Montana’s hunting season – and the wolf hunting season just about to begin – park officials said they expect more wolves to die after roaming Yellowstone, where hunting is banned.
Park Inspector Cam Sholly first raised concerns in September last year about wolves dying near the park border. He recently called on Republican Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte to shut down hunting and trapping in the area for the rest of the season.
Sholly quoted “the extraordinary number of Yellowstone wolves already killed in this hunting season,” in a letter to Gianforte on December 16 issued to the AP under a request for freedom of information.
Gianforte, an avid hunter and trapper, did not directly address the request to stop the hunt in a Wednesday letter that corresponded to Sholly.
“When a wolf leaves the park and enters the state of Montana, it can be harvested in accordance with rules laid down by the (State Wildlife) Commission under Montana law,” Gianforte wrote.
Gianforte received a warning last year from a game warden in Montana after trapping and shooting a wolf with a radio collar about 10 miles north of the park without taking a state-mandated prisoner training course.
In his response to Sholly, the governor said Montana protects against overhunting through rules passed by the Wildlife Commission, which can review hunting seasons if harvest levels exceed a certain threshold.
For southwestern Montana, including areas bordering the park, this threshold is 82 wolves. 64 have been killed in this region to date this season, out of 150 wolves killed across the country, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
The most recent wolf kill along the border between Montana and Yellowstone happened on New Year’s Day.
Wolf hunting in the area opened on December 21st. Under new rules, Montana hunters can use baits such as meat to lure wolves for killing, and trappers can now use snares in addition to fox traps.
“Subsidies for trapping and especially bait are a major concern, especially if these tactics lure wolves out of the park,” said Yellowstone spokesman Morgan Warthin.
Encouraged by Republican lawmakers, Montana wildlife authorities last year loosened the rules for hunting and trapping wolves across the country. They also removed long-standing wolf quota restrictions in areas bordering the park. The quotas that Sholly asked Gianforte to reintroduce allowed only a few wolves to be killed along the border annually.
The original quotas were intended to protect herds that attract tourists to Yellowstone from around the world to get the chance to see a wolf in the wild.
Montana’s efforts to make it easier to kill wolves reflect the recent actions of Republicans and conservatives in other states like Idaho and Wisconsin. The changes came after hunters and ranchers successfully lobbied to reduce the wolf populations that prey on big game herds and occasionally on livestock.
But increased state aggression against predators has given rise to concern among federal wildlife officials. In September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it would investigate whether federal protection of endangered species should be restored for more than 2,000 wolves in northern U.S. Rockies states, including Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
Protection of the region’s wolves was lifted ten years ago, based in part on assurances that states would maintain viable wolf populations.
A representative of the hunting industry said outfitters and guides support the conservation of wolves inside Yellowstone. But once the animals cross the border, sustainable hunting and trapping should be allowed, said Montana Outfitters and Guides Association CEO Mac Minard.
Minard questioned whether the 20 wolves that have been killed so far this year after leaving Yellowstone should be considered “park wolves” at all.
“It just does not make sense,” he said. “Why is it not ‘Montana wolves’ who happened to walk into the park?”
Marc Cooke with the advocacy group Wolves of the Rockies predicted a backlash against Gianforte and the state for not doing more to protect wolves leaving Yellowstone.
“People love these animals and they bring tons of money into the park,” Cooke said. “This boils down to the commercialization of wildlife for a small minority of special interest groups.”