An unusual set of circumstances led to an extremely habituated litter of wolf pups being raised near Slough Creek last summer, a behavioral trait that likely played a role in two pups being hit and killed on Yellowstone roads months later.
The demise of two of the Junction Butte Pack’s 7-month-old pups, which died after being hit by a vehicle, was reported by Yellowstone National Park officials last week. The pups were part of a Canis lupus litter that had attracted the attention of park employees looking to aggressively haze them for months. The animals, Yellowstone senior wolf biologist Doug Smith said, were perilously comfortable around humans.
“If people are around when they’re 2, 3 months old, they develop this lifelong outlook that people just aren’t a big deal,” Smith said. “That’s just not good.”
Smith pointed to the location of the wolf den as a cause of the habituation.
A first-time den site for the Junction Butte Pack, it was situated within eyeshot — 200 to 300 yards away — from a trail at Slough Creek, Smith said. Furthermore, there was a privately owned inholding in the area, Silver Tip Ranch, which made closing the area down entirely not reasonable.
“You’ve got that, and then you’ve got one of the most popular trails in Yellowstone,” Smith said. “The pups figured it out and they came to the trail. We suspect that when people saw them, they left the trail.”
By the time two of the Junction Butte’s 13 pups were hit in a Nov. 19 nighttime collision, they were 7 or so months old and likely 50-plus pounds. Silver Gate, Montana resident and avid wolf watcher Rick McIntyre, formerly of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, recalled that the pups retained their fearlessness of roads even as they aged.
“Some of them didn’t seem to have the understanding that it can be a dangerous thing to linger on the road,” McIntyre said. “I would compare it to young kids who don’t quite understand the same issue: the danger of being on the road.”
Yellowstone rangers are investigating the collision that killed the pups, and did not make law enforcement officers available for an interview. The hit-and-run collision, which wasn’t called in, took place near sundown.
Yellowstone Wolf Project employees and volunteers tried repeatedly to haze the litter, but “teachable moments” with tools like beanbag guns were hard to come by, Smith said.
“You can’t go out in the field and just start randomly pounding them,” Smith said. “We did get some opportunities, but I would say there were not great teaching events. We fired at them and missed, that kind of thing.”
Apart from the habituated Junction Butte litter, Yellowstone has tried to step up its efforts to make wolves wary of humans.
Legal hunters immediately outside Yellowstone boundaries have periodically taken advantage of wolves that generally lacked fear of humans. At times the deaths of habituated wolves have caused outrage, such as when a Cooke City, Montana, hunter killed wolf 926F in 2018. The hunter’s trophy was a 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.
But it wasn’t until the 2019 Junction Butte litter that Yellowstone dealt with wolves that learned their habituated behavior as puppies, when they’re most impressionable. Not knowing how to deal with it, Smith called up his wolf management counterparts at Alberta, Canada’s Banff National Park, who had tried to counteract the behavior of wolves that lost their fear of humans in their earliest days.
“They said, ‘We’ve had to remove partial or entire packs,’” Smith said. “Hazing them did not help them, so they killed them.
“What we’re trying to do is prevent that kind of thing from happening,” he said. “We were on the trail all summer trying to haze those pups.”
The Junction Butte litters experienced some mortality at the den, but even with the loss of two more from the accident the litter still numbers eight animals. Smith and his staff aren’t giving up on trying to turn the youngsters into wild wolves that know what people and roads represent: danger.
“We’re going to try to keep hazing them,” Smith said.