Yellowstone wolf biologist Doug Smith said Montana's 2011-2012 wolf season so far has turned out better for the park than an inaugural hunt in 2009. That year hunters killed four of the ten wolves in Yellowstone's Cottonwood pack, the subject of years of scientific research and a popular draw for wolf watchers visiting the park from across the country.
The killings sparked an outcry from wildlife advocates and prompted Montana to adjust its hunting regulations to prevent a recurrence.
Smith said four wolves shot outside the park's northern boundary this season were not from the same pack as in 2009. Also, at least two of those animals did not live exclusively inside the park. By contrast, the Cottonwood pack was composed of "park wolves" that spent 98 percent of their time inside Yellowstone, only to be shot when they briefly wandered across the Montana border as the hunting season began.
"Distinguishing why we consider this is a success is very important," Smith said. "We only had knowledge of two that got shot (this season) and they were on their way out of the park. We can't claim that was a park pack."
Yellowstone administrators last year asked Montana officials to impose hunting restrictions in a second area, to the northwest of the park, but those were not enacted by the state. Smith said he did not know of any park wolves among the 11 reported killed in that area so far this season.
Hunting along much of the park's northern border has been closed since October after the four wolves were killed, exceeding the area's three-animal quota. Twelve wolves were killed in roughly the same area of the Gallatin National Forest during an early-season hunt in 2009.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim said this season's lower quota along the border was designed in part to refocus hunting efforts elsewhere, in hopes of curbing livestock and big game attacks by wolves in other parts of the state.
Smith says four wolves shot outside the park's northern boundary this season were not from a single pack as in 2009.
"The idea was to be more surgical, so we could focus on areas where we had specific needs for harvest," Aasheim said.
He described the state's wolf hunting regulations as a work in progress that could be adjusted again in coming years.
The park has 97 wolves in 10 packs, according to the latest unofficial count. Those animals are descended from several dozen of the predators reintroduced to Yellowstone and central Idaho beginning in 1995 — the core of a Northern Rockies wolf population that had grown to at least 1,650 animals at the end of 2010.
Congress last spring stripped federal protections from the animals in portions of five states under pressure from Western lawmakers. That allowed wolf hunting in Montana and Idaho to resume after the state's seasons were canceled in 2010 because of lawsuits from animal rights groups.
Since August, hunters and trappers in Idaho and Montana have taken 319 of the animals. At least 177 more were killed in Idaho, Montana and neighboring Wyoming in 2011 by government wildlife agents, ranchers protecting livestock and other causes.
Wolves in Wyoming remain protected but have been proposed for removal from the federal endangered species list sometime this year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That could allow hunting in the state as soon as this fall, barring a successful courtroom challenge from wildlife advocates.
Idaho and Wyoming each have only a single pack living along the park's border, reducing the chance that hunting in the states could cause problems, biologist Smith said.
But Chris Colligan, a wildlife advocate with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said Montana's attempt to steer hunters away from some areas should be repeated elsewhere in the Northern Rockies to ensure the species' long-term survival.
Colligan said hunting restrictions similar to those on Yellowstone's border should be enacted along backcountry corridors frequently used by wolves to journey from one part of the region to another.
"This season they were able to establish a quota that would prevent some of those things that happened in 2009 from happening again," Colligan said. "For long-term genetic health of wolves, it's probably wise to protect those dispersal corridors as much as possible."