A lone wolf takes a stroll along the Grand Loop Road in Yellowstone Park. JON JACOBS--all photos.
May 26, 2011
Yellowstone National Park's gray wolf population became instinct some 80 years ago when park managers killed them to "save" the species wolves prey upon, notably elk.
In the 1970's, the Defenders of Wildlife, other animal rights organizations, and some scientists, campaigned to bring wolves back to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. They believed removing predators like wolves from the food chain created unacceptable imbalances in the natural order.
Wolves were brought back to the park in 1995, and now there are around 100 of them in 13 packs in the park, and hundreds more in the three states surrounding Yellowstone.
Although most wolves avoid humans, a few do approach people and some people have responded by encouraging their "friendliness" and feeding them.
In 2003, Yellowstone wolf managers published "Management of Habituated Wolves in Yellowstone National Park," to guide park rangers dealing with wolf-human interactions. The document notes, "tremendous attention and exposure to humans has caused some wolves to lose their natural fear of humans."
It lists these points park rangers should stress when educating people about how to keep wolves wild:
- Maintain a safe viewing distance from wolves at all times. Wolf viewing situations will sometimes involve humans and wolves in close proximity. Visitors should not encourage or allow wolves to get close to them. Anticipating wolf travel and retreating or getting into a vehicle are ways to prevent encounters and avoid blocking wolf travel routes. Encounters may also occur during backcountry outings, even in well-established human use areas. As with road or near-road wolf encounters, visitors in the backcountry should not approach wolves, or allow wolves to get close to them. Allowing wolves to move through the area or hiking around or away from them will help reduce encounters. Visitors should not allow wolves to approach them within 50 meters. Should a wolf move within this distance, humans should respond as described below. Closure to visitor access may be necessary if a certain situation becomes unmanageable.
- If a wolf does approach. If avoiding a wolf is unsuccessful, or a safe retreat is unavailable, visitors should not run from the wolf. Visitors should group together to give the appearance of a bigger threat, and should raise their hands, clap their hands, throw rocks, flare any loose clothing such as a jacket, yell, and stand their ground, as running may elicit a response by the wolf to chase. If the wolf approaches, the visitors should continue to stand their ground and strike at the wolf with a stick or pole should one be available. Small children can be susceptible, as they are less threatening; do not leave them alone. Many of the same precautions for a close bear or mountain lion encounter apply for a wolf as well. This message will be proactively disseminated to the public when a habituated wolf situation has been reported or is ongoing.
- Do not feed wolves. Education must reinforce to the public that feeding wildlife can lead to the death of an animal and human injury. As with bears and some other wildlife, wolves that learn how to get human foods even once may attempt to do so again. Visitors will be reminded that both actively feeding wolves, as well as indirectly providing food through careless food handling in designated picnic areas, campsites, pullouts, or backcountry sites, is strictly prohibited and punishable by law.
- Dogs may attract wolves. In YNP, dogs are not allowed in the backcountry, and are restricted to developed areas and roadsides, provided they are on a leash. The public will be informed that dogs may attract wolves, unprotected dogs may be attacked, and interfering in a dog—wolf interaction may result in injury. Walking a dog may be an attractant to a wolf; small children should not walk dogs alone. If a wolf approaches, follow the same steps under #2 above, although expect greater difficulty in deterring the wolves.