Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park

After years of optimism, gray wolf population declining

December 15, 2009, 7:30 am

A dozen tourists in parkas huddle around wolf researcher Colby Anton in the northern range of the park, an area famous for gray wolves, to catch a glimpse of the images on his digital camera.

The wolf watchers have become a familiar scene since the animals were reintroduced into the park in 1995 after being gone for nearly 70 years. The wolves have fueled a $35 million-a-year industry as cars full of tourists spend hours from dawn to dusk looking for wolves and trading tales.

Now the tales are changing.

The image on Anton's camera is of a dead wolf he discovered on an 18-mile hike in the high country of the park. "We found it partially buried under the snow, did a necropsy and concluded a wolf from another pack killed the wolf," he says.

The gray wolf population is declining, says Doug Smith, the coordinator of the reintroduction efforts and leader of the Yellowstone Wolf Project that studies and manages the wolves. Wolves are killing each other at a higher frequency to compete for elk, their primary food source, which is less abundant now, he says.

"The good times are over," Smith says. His annual census of the park's wolf population is expected to be the lowest in 10 years, he said. Smith is still gathering data but says the number of gray wolves in the park will be 116, a 33% drop from 2003, when the population was at an all-time high of 174.

While parvovirus and mange continue to reduce the population, part of this year's decline can be traced to the fact that wolves lost protection in the Northern Rockies under the Endangered Species Act in 2008. Wolves, like all wildlife, are protected inside the park, but when they roam beyond the borders, they fall into the state's wildlife management practices. Idaho and Montana, which border Yellowstone, permitted hunting of wolves this fall. Idaho recently extended its hunt until March.

The Yellowstone pack hardest hit by the hunt is nicknamed Cottonwood. Hunters killed four members of the pack, including the breeding female, her mate and her daughter in a Montana wilderness area bordering the park.

"The wolves have it hard enough inside the park," says Rolf Peterson, a wildlife biologist at Michigan Technological University. "The Yellowstone wolves should be treated like national treasures and protected."

Several conservation groups, including the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife, have joined in a lawsuit and argue that the Northern Rockies wolves should be put back on the endangered species list. If wolves are relisted, hunting would be banned.

"We're very much against the hunting of wolves at this time," says Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife. The group faults the states' management plans to reduce wolves from 1,650 to 450. State officials state the need to balance the wolves with the habitat and other wildlife.

"It probably sounds counterintuitive to kill wildlife to protect wildlife," says Caroline Sime, wolf program coordinator for Montana Fish and Wildlife. "We haven't opened the floodgates to killing wolves, but having wolves, livestock and other wild game on the same landscape in Montana is tricky. It's a very tenuous balance."

Montana Fish and Wildlife closed the hunting season early in the area where the Yellowstone wolves were killed and plans to wait until spring to decide about next season's wolf hunt — if there is one.