Loss of collared wolves complicates tracking and research, internal park correspondence shows.
By Mike Koshmrl, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
January 16, 2013
Natural deaths, run-ins with humans and hunting have combined to cut Yellowstone National Park’s wolf populations by about a quarter.
The latest count shows 15 wolves that ventured into Yellowstone over the past year were legally killed in Idaho, Montana or Wyoming hunts.
Eight to 11 of those animals spent the majority of the last year in the park and would likely have been counted toward official 2012 year-end population tallies.
At least six and as many as nine wolves from packs that sometimes roam into Grand Teton National Park had been killed through Nov. 7, reports show.
Information on wolf kills over the last eight weeks of the season, however, is unavailable, Grand Teton spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said.
In Yellowstone, where a legal debate swirls over trapping in Montana north of the park, there are now an estimated 20 to 28 percent fewer wolves than the 98 counted at this time last year, said Dan Stahler, a wildlife biologist with the Yellowstone Wolf Project.
“We’re looking at an estimate between 71 and 78 wolves right now,” Stahler said in a phone interview. “That’s in nine wolf packs. Out of those wolf packs, six will be considered a breeding pair for the coming year.” Despite the drop, Yellowstone’s wolf population is still well above recovery goals laid out in the Wyoming wolf management plan.
Under the plan, the national park is expected to have a minimum of 50 wolves and five breeding pairs. Had it not been for hunting-related losses, Yellowstone would have had a mostly stable wolf population, Stahler said.
A substantial human impact on Yellowstone’s wolves is inconsistent with the National Park Service’s goal of “managing biological resources” to “minimize human intervention,” a report about wolf hunting on Yellowstone’s website shows. Yellowstone officials tried to minimize the impact of hunting on park wolves, email and other correspondence between park and state officials shows. Information included in this story uses documents the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Before the 2010 and 2011 hunting seasons, Yellowstone officials lobbied for a buffer zone with reduced quotas in hunt areas adjacent to the park in Montana. A June 17, 2011, letter from Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk to Joe Maurier, director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, shows park managers’ efforts. Wenk wrote that the state’s proposed 2011 subquota of three wolves in a deer and elk hunting district that is part of Wolf Management Unit 390 “adequately protects packs along the northern boundary of the park.”
But, he said, a 19-wolf quota in the state’s Wolf Management Unit 310 in the Gallatin and Madison mountains, “could substantially impact packs that venture from Yellowstone National Park into areas around Gardiner and West Yellowstone, Mont., that are open to hunting.” The park superintendent asked Montana officials to lower the unit 310 quota. But a year and a half later, the hunting quota for the unit still stands at 19 wolves.
A number of collared animals used for research were harvested in the unit this past hunting season.
Stahler said similar requests were made to Idaho and Wyoming. “Both in 2009 and 2011, we met with the states,” he said. “In 2011, we specifically made formal requests to look at reduced-harvest strategies near the park lines.”
Stahler said Yellowstone personnel met with Wyoming Game and Fish Department officials to discussed reduced-harvest strategies before the state’s hunt began in October. No changes were made after the meeting, he said. “I think that the state of Wyoming already had their quotas in place,” he said.
Yellowstone officials have not yet decided whether to formally ask for reduced harvest quotas in the upcoming Wyoming hunting season, Stahler said. Three wolves that roamed Yellowstone over the last year were killed in the Wyoming hunt this year. That includes the alpha and beta wolves from the Lamar Canyon Pack and a collared 5-year-old male from the Snake River Pack. The Snake River Pack kill eliminated the only collared wolf in the pack, Stahler said. “That pack now is untrackable,” he said.
One other Yellowstone wolf pack, the Junction Butte Pack, is currently untrackable after collared wolves were lost to hunting, Stahler said. The rash of lost research animals “pretty much caught everyone off guard,” he said. “One individual, the only time he stepped outside of the park over the last year, was the day he was shot,” Stahler said. “There’s no doubt about it, the loss of those wolves to the hunt had a negative impact to our research.” Because of a Wyoming state statute, the status of wolves that use Grand Teton National Park is less clear.
The Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance’s Freedom of Information Act request shows that through Nov. 7, hunters took nine wolves from seven packs in the Jackson Hole area. Some of those wolves rarely if ever used the park over the past year. More recent and specific information hasn’t been provided to Grand Teton biologists by the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish, Skaggs said.
“We used to have more free flow of information,” Skaggs said. “It’s definitely taken a turn since the wolf hunt started.”
Wyoming state law bars state Game and Fish officials from sharing specific information, including age, sex, breeding status, location and other details about any wolf that’s been legally killed. The statute is intended to protect the wolf hunters’ identities.
The statute states: “Any information regarding the number or nature of wolves legally taken within the state of Wyoming shall only be released in its aggregate form and no information of a private or confidential nature shall be released without the written consent of the person to whom the information may refer. Information identifying any person legally taking a wolf within this state is solely for the use of the department or appropriate law enforcement offices and is not a public record.”
Cory Hatch, wildlands director for the alliance, said that findings from his employer’s Freedom of Information Act request is proof of the need for more transparency with Wyoming’s wolf hunt.
“I think the documents clearly show that research efforts in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks are clearly suffering because of these wolf hunts,” Hatch said. “That’s thousands of dollars, if not more, wasted.”