Information on the 2012-13 Wolf Hunt Near Yellowstone National Park

How are wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem managed?

Within the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, there are roughly 480 wolves occurring in 75 packs, distributed throughout eastern Idaho, southwestern Montana, northern Wyoming, and Yellowstone. Of those, in 2011 approximately 18 packs spend some or all of their time within Yellowstone National Park. Within the park, no hunting of wolves is allowed. Outside the park, regulated hunting is allowed and managed by the respective states where wolves occur. Because wolves do not recognize political boundaries, and often move between different jurisdictions, the harvest of some wolves that live within the park for most of the year, but at times move outside the park, occurs.

What is happening to wolf numbers in Yellowstone National Park?
Wolf numbers remained stable from 2009 through 2011, following a decline from earlier years. The population has declined approximately 20% in 2012 from recent years. These fluctuations are natural and primarily in response to fewer elk, their primary prey. The number of wolves in the northern portion of Yellowstone decreased from 94 in December 2007 to 34 by December 14, 2012 due to wolves killing each other, food stress, disease, and human-caused mortality inside and outside the park. Park-wide, the number of wolves in Yellowstone declined from 171 in December 2007 to 82 in December 2012 due to the same reasons. There are currently 4 packs of wolves in northern Yellowstone and 6 packs in the rest of the park that use the park for the majority of the year, but occasionally move into surrounding states.

How far will wolf numbers in Yellowstone decrease or increase?
How far numbers decrease or increase will depend primarily on prey populations (which in turn will affect wolf-wolf killing-another mortality factor), as well as other factors like disease, vehicle strikes, and human harvest and culls (e.g., livestock depredation) outside Yellowstone where wolves also spend some of their time. The extent of any decrease or increase cannot be reliably predicted from year-to-year because there is substantial variability in environmental conditions (e.g., prey availability; severe winters) and human interactions (e.g., vehicle strikes; harvest outside the park) which affect wolf reproduction and survival, along with emigration/immigration to and from areas outside the park. It is expected that wolves in Yellowstone will remain at a level determined primarily by prey availability and other environmental conditions.

Has the harvest of wolves in surrounding states affected the viability of wolves in Yellowstone?
No. As of late March 1 2013, 12 wolves, or about 12% of the total number that primarily live in Yellowstone, have been legally harvested outside the park. All wolf hunting and trapping units managed by the States surrounding YNP are now closed for the 2012/2013 season. The population could probably sustain higher losses per year from human-caused mortality without experiencing a significant decline. However, one NPS goal for managing biological resources is to minimize human intervention which in this case is to reduce any kind of human-caused mortality within the park. Previously, about 3-4% of the wolves that use Yellowstone and the surrounding areas were lost each year to human-caused mortality (i.e., vehicle strikes; culling of habituated individuals). Human-caused wolf mortality in trans-boundary packs at the levels seen during the 2012/2013 season is not expected to substantially influence wolf numbers in the park over the long term.

At least three of the wolves from Yellowstone that were harvested in 2012/2013 season were of high social rank (e.g., alpha female or beta male), which could affect reproduction, hunting behavior, and territory defense for the respective packs over the short term. 7 of 10 (70%) packs living primarily in the park had at least one wolf harvested from them. Thus, harvests of wolves in states surrounding Yellowstone have affected the function of packs in the park as do natural forms of mortality. Wolves often quickly fill vacant biological and social niches that are a result of wolf losses from any cause.

What actions have the Park Service taken to reduce the effects of harvest on wolves in Yellowstone?
U.S. Code specifically prohibits hunting in Yellowstone National Park. However, similar to other wildlife species that reside in the park for a good portion of the year, wolves that venture into states surrounding Yellowstone are exposed to different management actions, such as hunting, or different land-use practices, such as ranching, than those realized within the park. The Park Service has no management authority over wildlife outside the park, but coordinates closely with wildlife agencies in adjacent states regarding species that move across jurisdictional boundaries. Harvest in the surrounding states is closely regulated by state personnel.

Prior to the 2012 wolf harvest season, the Park Service met with wildlife staff from both Montana and Wyoming and discussed several reduced harvest strategies in certain hunting districts along the boundary of Yellowstone National Park. One sub-quota was implemented by Montana in one hunting district (unit 316) outside the northern boundary of Yellowstone-that sub-quota has not yet been reached. Wyoming biologists have indicated that the harvest units and quotas near the park boundary were designed to be relatively small, and allow for finer-grained management, to ensure that wolf numbers around the park remain healthy.

State biologists are monitoring the wolf harvest closely and sharing updates with the Park Service regularly. In turn, park biologists are sharing information about the harvest of wolves that lived primarily in Yellowstone with state biologists. The agencies have agreed to meet at the end of the hunting season to discuss the harvest and recommendations for future years. Each agency may receive additional recommendations from other stakeholders.

What is the response of Yellowstone National Park to the harvest closure and recent reopening around Gardiner, Montana?
On December 10th 2012, the Montana Wildlife Commission voted to close two other small areas north of Yellowstone around Gardiner, Montana to hunting and trapping for wolves after three collared animals were harvested by hunters in November. Yellowstone National Park acknowledges the importance of regulated hunting as a tool used to manage many wildlife species in surrounding states, but appreciated the careful consideration of Montana's wildlife commissioners in their decision to close portions of the Gardiner hunting district to mitigate undesired harvest of wolves living primarily in Yellowstone. On January 2nd 2013, a Montana judge blocked the state from closing hunting and trapping in these two areas surrounding Gardiner. The judge sided with plaintiffs in a case that argued a lack of public notice on the Commission's vote to close wolf harvest appeared to violate the Montana Constitution and threatened to deprive the public of the legal right to harvest wolves. Hunting and trapping resumed in the Gardiner area on January 3rd. The Park Service and Montana continued to monitor and communicate on wolf harvests until the end of the season February 28th. No additional wolves living primarily in Yellowstone but using the Gardiner area were shot or trapped. Management of wolves outside of Yellowstone is under the jurisdiction of the states.

What are the effects of collared wolves being harvested? Are these collared animals important to the park and surrounding states?
During the 2012/2013 wolf hunting season, six of the wolves that lived in Yellowstone National Park during most of the year, but were harvested in the surrounding states, were fitted with radio collars. These collars were used to track wolf movements, obtain counts, study wolf-prey relationships and ecosystem effects, and monitor mortality and reproduction. Thus, this information was important to both the park and the surrounding states for ecological studies, conservation, and management-including when wolves moved into areas of adjacent states with livestock operations. Routine replacements of collars are part of any wildlife monitoring program that uses radio collars. Collared wolves are lost for many reasons (e.g., dispersal, wolves killing wolves, attacks on prey, vehicle strikes, malnourishment, and human harvest). As part of ongoing research and management, biologists plan to replace collars as specific objectives dictate.

Wolves in Yellowstone have become a great source of enjoyment to millions of people around the world. Many of the radio-collared wolves are well-known because they are individually identifiable and quite visible to wildlife watchers during portions of the year. However, the park's primary objective is to maintain a naturally functioning wolf population by minimizing human intervention within the park. This objective can be achieved with a modest harvest of individual wolves outside the Yellowstone boundary. Wolves in Yellowstone are part of a larger population that includes much of the northern Rockies, which may safeguard the likelihood that there will be wolves in Yellowstone for people to enjoy into the foreseeable future.

Are radio-collared wolves being selected by hunters outside of Yellowstone National Park?
We have no specific knowledge that hunters are selecting collared wolves or using radio-collar frequencies to find wolves (an illegal hunting practice). Radio collars are sometimes difficult to see at a distance and may not be recognizable to hunters. State laws do not prohibit a hunter from harvesting a radio-collared wolf originating from any jurisdiction.

Are wolves living primarily inside Yellowstone more vulnerable to harvest?
Possibly-wolves and other wildlife species in Yellowstone are watched by millions of people and may become tolerant of humans beings, which could make them more vulnerable to hunter harvest. However, there have been no specific studies to verify this assumption in this ecosystem.

What are some of the economic effects of wolf restoration to the local communities?
The effects of wolf restoration on elk abundance have contributed to economic loss to businesses and communities that benefit from ungulate hunting (e.g., hotels; stores; restaurants). However, wolf restoration has contributed substantially to local economies through wildlife viewing related tourism.

Why do people hunt wolves?
Hunting is a traditional use of wildlife in American culture and plays a role in managing wildlife populations. While hunting is not permitted in Yellowstone National Park, the National Park Service recognizes the role of hunting in areas outside the park as part of wildlife management and conservation programs administered by the states.


Last updated: February 13, 2020

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