Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park

Shooting of collared wolves impacts research

November 2, 2009, 7:19 am

Yellowstone National Park's scientific research on wolves got caught in the crossfire of Montana's inaugural wolf season when hunters killed two collared wolves just north of the park earlier this month.

As the smoke has cleared, federal wolf officials are at odds over the effect of the shootings and Montana's game managers are re-examining how it will conduct its next wolf season - if there is one. Environmental groups have appealed Montana and Idaho's wolf hunting seasons in federal court.

The two collared wolves shot were a mother, 527F, and daughter, 716F. They were part of the 10-member Cottonwood pack, which ranged over the northern border of Yellowstone into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and became legal game. Two other pack members, the alpha male and a 5-month-old pup, were also shot.

527F, the Cottonwood pack's alpha female, had been collared for five years, since she was 2, providing a lengthy stream of data for Yellowstone's study of the lifetime reproductive success of breeding females, said Doug Smith, Yellowstone's wolf biologist. At age 7, she was long-lived compared with wolf populations outside the park, which are subject to control measures and typically die at age 2 or 3.

Yellowstone's studies are unique because they track an unhunted population of wolves, allowing researchers to examine the natural life cycle of wolves unaffected by human predation, their leading cause of death outside areas like Yellowstone, Smith said.

"Most wolves die outside of protected places," he said.

Another reason the Cottonwood pack was of interest to researchers is that it occupied an area that has seen a high pack turnover ratio - four packs in 12 years. Researchers are trying to determine why.

With the loss of the pack's only two collared wolves, biologists also lose contact with the rest of the pack, so their fate is unknown. Yellowstone's Wolf Project tries to collar at least one wolf in every pack to track them.

The loss of two collared wolves out of a park population of more than 120 wolves in 12 packs was deemed insignificant by Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.