Jackson Hole, WY News

Wolf 926F

Wolf 926F, pictured, was unwary of people, and would pass by them and their vehicles without hesitation. This habituation likely led to the famous Yellowstone National Park wolf’s death in a Montana hunt, but it’s sparked a discussion that may result in a policy change about up-close wolf viewing to instill a fear of mankind.

Wolf biologist Doug Smith wants to smarten up Yellowstone’s wolves.

As Yellowstone National Park’s senior wildlife biologist, Smith has witnessed naive, habituated wolves being hunted down easily outside of the park, where people can legally point rifles instead of cameras. Since wolf hunting seasons outside the 2.2-million-acre park’s borders in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming aren’t going to come to an end, Smith wants to start teaching wolves a life-saving lesson: People aren’t safe.

“Right now, if they’re crossing the road we may leave them alone,” Smith told the News&Guide this week. “Now we’re thinking of pounding them. If you get close to people, you’re going to get hit.”

Being “hit,” he explained, means hazing wolves, with either paintball or beanbag guns. Making such a major change to Yellowstone’s roadside wolf-watching policy — if it goes through — would be the result of introspection.

“I’m the one who said having a wolf crossing the road was OK,” Smith said, “but now I’m thinking maybe it’s not.

“Having a wolf not wary of a person, that’s a product derived from the park,” he said. “Those were wolves that lived 99 percent of the time in the park. That’s on us, so what do we do? To be honest I don’t know, but now everything is on the table.”

Typically, a few of Yellowstone’s 100 or so wolves are killed annually in state-sanctioned hunts, although in the worst year, 2012, a dozen died. The inherent conflict between preserving wildlife unimpaired within the park and honoring the tradition of hunting outside the park tends to get attention when the most famed of Yellowstone wolves die from rifle fire.

That happened, again, when a Cooke City, Montana, hunter killed wolf 926F on Nov. 24. The hunter’s trophy was a highly habituated former alpha female of the Lamar Canyon Pack with a lineage that traced to the 1995 wolf reintroduction. It was the same fate as the world-famous lobo’s mother, known as “06,” and it sparked an online fury, and calls for a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks investigation.

Despite rampant hearsay, Montana wardens reached Tuesday morning said they had not uncovered any indication of wrongdoing.

“We have no reason to believe that this kill was unlawful,” said Adam Pankratz, the state’s Region 3 warden captain. “I’ve gotten a lot of a calls from a lot of people who said ‘I’ve heard that’ or ‘I read this,’ but we have not spoken to anyone who was an eyewitness or had any evidence. We’ve got nothing really to go on at this point.”

Yellowstone managers considering a policy shift to discourage wolf-people interactions isn’t altogether new. The park has a habituated wolf management plan of 2002 vintage, Smith said, but a review of that plan concluded that aversive conditioning and hazing wouldn’t be effective at reversing habituated behavior.

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Wolf 926F

Yellowstone National Park’s famous wolf 926F, pictured, was killed by a hunter Nov. 24 outside Cooke City, Montana.

Then Yellowstone Wolf Project scientists and rangers learned otherwise from experience.

“It does work,” Smith said. “That makes me think that we need to haze these wolves harder. All I ask is that visitors meet us halfway.”

Gardiner, Montana, resident and avid wolf watcher Deby Dixon looked back at 926F as a particularly habituated wolf, one that grew up with cameras and spotting scopes pointed at her. The 7 1/2-year-old graying black female was also a bucket-list lobo that Lamar Valley visitors set out to see.

“Everybody that came to Yellowstone to see the wolves, they came to see her,” Dixon said. “That was their goal.”

A small wolf, at just about 80 pounds, 926F was a great-great-great-grandaughter of wolf No. 9, part of the first batch of wolves reintroduced into Yellowstone 23 years ago from Alberta.

Dixon, like many wolf watchers, is opposed to hunting wolves right outside Yellowstone’s boundaries, but she also appreciates that Montana managers treat areas abutting the park differently.

Two hunt zones bordering the park’s northern border allow no more than four wolves to be killed total, which are among the most conservative seasons in a state that does not cap harvest in most areas.

“We’ve been very fortunate that the quota was lowered, and they’ve kept it lower despite complaints from the hunters,” Dixon said. “But still, you’re losing something that was loved by thousands and millions of people that came to Yellowstone.

“She educated them, gave them this joy of seeing a wolf in the wild,” she said. “She’s worth so much more alive.”

It remains to be seen how wolf watchers, who are a fervent bunch, would receive a policy change about up-close viewing, but Smith knows it will be a tough sell.

“It’s the coolest thing in the world to see a wolf up close, and you’re going to tell somebody that you can’t do it,” the longtime Yellowstone Wolf Project leader said. “Yellowstone is the best place in the world to observe free-ranging wolves. People come here from all over the world to see wolves. If it’s your first trip to the park and if a wolf’s headed right at you on the road and you’re expected to drive on, that’s a big ask.”

But the most devoted of wolf watchers was hopeful that his community would buy in. That person, Silver Gate, Montana resident Rick McIntyre, a recent Yellowstone Wolf Project retiree, said he was “100 percent for” what Smith is proposing.

“We have to do something,” McIntyre said. “It will take a lot of good people working together, and a lot of help from park visitors and local people.

“But perhaps that’s going to be the outcome of the story of 926,” he said, “that her death will accomplish some good, and we’ll all come together to do a better job on managing crowds and roads and wolves in Yellowstone.”

Smith’s pitch to the wolf-watching community is that aggressive hazing — if that’s what Yellowstone chooses — will be for their own benefit.

“I’m trying to preserve their opportunity as much as possible,” Smith said, “and that means keeping wolves alive.”

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067, env@jhnewsandguide.com or @JHNGenviro.

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(28) comments

Diane Henry

Not surprising if the expeditions of 1870, 1871 saw many elk and few or no wolves. Most of the fur bearing animals in the area fell to the Fur Trade trappers from late 1700's to late 1840's. When Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872, all animals were protected except, guess who...Predators. The wolves were already in decline in the area and government predator control programs in the first decades of the 1900's wiped them out for good in 1926. With wolves gone, elk populations began to rise and it only took several years for the range to decline drastically. Elk control began and continued into the 1960's. Elk control was ended under pressure from local hunters and congressmen. Elk populations rose again, their overly large numbers considered to cause the most profound changes to the ecosystem of Yellowstone with the absence of wolves. I've read there are only 100 or so wolves in Yellowstone and how many elk? Thousands. The wolves deserve protection in a buffer zone just out side Park boundaries.

Leslie Patten

How about Wyoming? The entire Northeast corner hunt zone 1 should be either no hunt (scientific zone or photographer zone you could call it) instead of 7 wolves. Cattle depredation is a minor if non-existent problem by wolves there. Wyoming wolf hunters have 85% of the state where they can hunt 365 days a year. Why shouldn't Wyoming have a buffer in that small area of 15% around the park.

Marion Dickinson

Frist of all, Yellowstone is over visited and foreign visitors actually pay LESS than Americans, because we have to support the shortfall in visitor fees with American paid taxes to support the NPs shortfalls. There is no mention of wolves in the Washburn exploration despite Lt. Doane keeping a meticulous list of all of the fauna they found in the park on that first visit. The wolves are a researcher's dream, they bring millions of dollars worth of non taxed research grants. They must be controlled. The first explorers saw huge numbers of elk and NO wolves. Now we have huge numbers of wolves and few elk.

Leslie Patten

Actually they reported huge numbers of sheep, not elk. And wildlife in general was most abundant in the plains where millions of bison were followed by grizzlies and wolves. We don't have that kind of habitat available anymore so wildlife has been relegated to areas we haven't wanted to live in.

Marion Dickinson

What report mentioned more sheep than elk? When Pres. T. Roosevelt was there for dedication of the arch he reported counting over 3000 in one herd, workers on the road mentioned a steady stream of elk migrating day and night.

Jay Westemeier

How many towns and people were impeding the elk herd migrations back in 1903 like they are now Marion? Virtually none. That is the problem today, not too many wolves.

Blake Chamley

Extend boundaries ?
Haze (Canadian) /Yellowstone animals?
This fight has already been fought. The wolves are here & multiplying & need managed just like everywhere else, due to people living in their habitats.
Yellowstone is Not a Zoo. Kick out all the photographers that are turning these wild animals into house pets (With Names).

Jay Westemeier

I'm all for this proposal and am sure that the majority of knowledgeable wolf watchers are too. I'm also an advocate for increased park entry fees. Our National Parks need much more revenue for staff and infrastructure. I think an increase in staff will be needed for any proposed hazing program to be successful.

Chad guenter

I agree with you on increased fess, Jay. 100 dollars per person per park for non-US citizen visitors. No change for US citizens.

dave johnson

There is and never will be an absolute perfect resolution to this situation regarding the wolves. The existing policies seem to be working, yet not perfect. There will always be a desire and or need for improvement. As of now we are still learning. I have to agree with Ms Dixon's comments as she appears to see both sides of the conflict.

Diane Henry

Habituated wolves should be reprogrammed or they will also fall. Too many visitors throw out food to them, trying for a photo-op, and causing their fearlessness. There should be strict penalties for feeding. Extended boundaries—yes.

Ken Chison

I have as well observed the food rewards at one time or another in Yellowstone. I do believe, that Yellowstone and GNP have a people problem. I know that serious thought has been going on about traffic problems and overcrowding in the parks. It is high time that the Park Service look to implement no personal vehicles in the park. We have it in many parks now, and this would help with the habituation of the wild animals. If people were only allowed to view the animals at designated viewing areas, with no stopping along non designated areas, the chance of interacting with them would be all but eliminated. No more allowing people to stalk after them, or camp out at turn outs from sun up to sun down. Implementation of an all electric fleet of buses, with limited exposure of people to the animals, would ultimately lead to an over all better park experience for all.

Sam Campbell

Ken I can't say that we align very often (at least on paper), but I'd have to say you're spot on. That solution gets rid of so many problems in the park. I think Yellowstone has some unique challenges that places like Zion don't have, but I can't understand why we haven't at least been moving in this direction for a while now. Driving through the parks is horrible anyway, it sure seems like there is potential to improve visitor experience in addition to protection wildlife, and the parks in general, through limiting or getting rid of private vehicles.

Diane Henry

You may very well have the final solution to Yellowstone’s people problem. No matter the signs: ‘no feeding,’ no stopping,’ ‘stay in your car’, and no matter the penalties, there will be ones who disobey, disrespect, and willingly approach, feed, and harass the wild animals. They will still leave their trash behind for animals to scavenge, possibly sickening them. They will plead ignorance of language and policies. How many more animals are going to be habituated, ensuring their untimely demise?

Ken Chison

Did anyone but me pick up on the picture at the top of the article. People stopped, in the middle of the road, out of their vehicle taking pictures. Like I said before. Yellowstone has a people problem.

William Huard

There is also a hunter problem.
The elk and deer do not belong to you

Diane Henry

Wolves deserve protection. Their packs are incredible social units. They are subject to the same canine diseases as are our dogs- distemper, bordetella, mange, parvovirus. They die from disease, pack aggression, injuries from elk, bison. Only the alpha female reproduces. Attacks on livestock are usually by novices who have lost their pack elders. Livestock losses are reimbursed by the State and insurance agencies. The rancher lobby is strong at the States level. If left alone, predator and prey interact to control their own populations.

William Addeo

The only good wolf is a dead wolf. Funny how you import them and fall in love with them but the goats that roam into Teton will be killed. You are all blinded by emotion created by stupidity.
God Bless America

Grant Spellerberg

William, wolves area natural part of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. As far as goats roaming into Teton getting killed: they should not be free roaming they should be fenced in. The only ones blinded by emotion are the people that believe wolves are the problem. Old antiquated beliefs that wolves want to eat everything and anything; that is the stupidity!

Chad guenter

How un-natural, wolves fearing man. Amazing that the NATURAL way of things is being criticized because it is ruining the ZOO experience for photographers without 5-10 thousand dollar zoom lenses.

Ed Loosli

The obvious real problem here is what Smith calls "Honoring the tradition of hunting outside the park"...The buffer zone around Yellowstone, which is still mostly National Forest land needs to BAN WOLF KILLING, not just reduce it... Let Smith join with the wolf protection groups and lobby the States of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming for this change...This "hit them hard" strategy of hazing the wolves inside the Park is punishing the wolves and the people who love them and then telling the hunters outside the Park to "proceed as usual"....In the case of Yellowstone's wolves "the usual hunting" near the Park is too much and must be stopped.

Aland Robert

Robert Aland
Also haze the trigger-happy "hunters."

Kevin Clark

Good, informative article. But if boundaries aren’t extended, then hunters will continue to wait, watch and pick them off one by one.

Ken Chison

Mr. Clark. The park has a boundary that is around 235 miles long, with some of the most rugged terrain in the lower 48. Do you really think that it is surrounded by hunters, just waiting for a wolf to step foot outside of it?

William Huard

Predator hunters including several on this particular post have an irrational hatred for wolves.
There are reports that 926F was shot in the middle of a road well within 50 yards of cabins where people stay.
Two way radios, snowmobiles.
The State FG agency does not want to investigate their “hunter constituency”
who clearly are making a cultural and political statement to people who want to see wolves alive.
Tourism- 35 million a year to local communities vs 19 bucks to shoot a Park Wolf.
It’s not right.
Killing these wolves does not help ungulate numbers nor does it protect livestock.
These are the two most common justifications to allow hunters to kill wolves.
There is already a 6 month hunting season on wolves.
The Federal GOON squad kills wolves to protect cows.
So, there are discussions about limiting wildlife viewing and no discussion of ending this quota of 4 wolves outside the Park boundary?

Ken Chison

Mr. Huard. Would you please share with us where your information on this wolf came from. Is it a rumor, or is it a fact. Also, to say that this wolf was responsible for the 35 million tourism industry, would be like me saying she was solely responsible for the 300+million dollars that hunters spent in Montana last year.

Jay Westemeier

$300 million pales compared to the $3.5 billion tourism brought in to Montana this year. Tourism revenue does not include money from hunters.

Ken Chison

Did someone hear gas pass in the wind?

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