A setback for wolf science

Wolf watches biologist

A news article in today's issue of Science magazine discusses the consequences of the northern Rockies wolf hunts on years of scientific research on some of the most well-studied wolves in North America - those of Yellowstone National Park.  Since their introduction into the park in 1995, scientists from both the government and various universities have studied their movements, behavior, genetics and basic biology.  It provided one of the few research studies of a natural wolf population - in the absence of exploitation by humans - that allowed researchers to document the wolves as they aged to determine the natural length of their lives, for example, and their reproductive success over the years.  But with the onset of the first wolf hunts in the region since wolves were eradicated in the 1930s, some of that research is now being compromised.

Although the park wolves themselves still retain protection, the park boundaries are not discernable to the wolves and when one of the packs ventured north of the park earlier this month, several members - including the alpha male and female and two research wolves representing years worth of data - were killed in Montana's hunt.  The loss of these wolves was clearly lamentable to the scientists who have spent years studying these wolves.  Dr. Daniel McNulty is quoted saying, "Any time radio-collared animals are lost, it's a huge setback for our research."  And the park's lead biologist, Doug Smith, points out that much of the information they collected on these wolves may no longer be relevant to some of their long term research questions since the wolves' lives came to an unnatural end.

Allowing hunting just outside the park boundaries increases the isolation of YNP wolves from other wolves in the region - an issue of ongoing concern over the delisting of wolves from the endangered species act.  As Dr. Bob Wayne, a wolf geneticist, points out, these hunts are likely to turn the area around the park into "predator sinks" by removing any young, dispersing wolves.  "This shouldn't have happened," he is quoted as saying. "Yellowstone's wolves should have absolute protection."

At a time when wolves have yet to reach full recovery and in a place designated to preserve the natural wilderness of the region, we couldn't agree more.