Not Even Yellowstone Wolves Are Safe from State Persecution

The wolves of Yellowstone National Park are some of the most observed, most studied and most beloved wolves in the entire world. This year, a handful of wolf hunters and trappers in the states surrounding the park are deliberately targeting them.

A gray wolf from the Wapiti pack standing in the snow in the Firehole area of Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Photo: Jim Peaco/NPS

On the days I’ve felt most beaten down by the environmental, social and public health crises of our time, I have ventured a couple hours from home into Yellowstone National Park to watch wolves as they play, howl, sleep, hunt and live out their lives free from the anxieties that plague modern society. I have deepened my understanding of the natural rhythms of life by observing these wolves engage in an ancient predator-prey dance that is essential to a healthy ecosystem. Like millions of other park visitors, I have been enriched and inspired by immersing myself in the wildness of the Yellowstone landscape—exemplifying the very mission of the National Park Service.

Disturbingly, not even Yellowstone wolves are safe from those whose thirst for power, conquest or vengeance has been directed at wolves. At least 20 park wolves have been killed during the current wolf hunting and trapping season after they stepped foot across the invisible park border into the surrounding states—15 in Montana and 5 more in Idaho and Wyoming. This accounts for 15-20% of the park’s total wolf population and more will surely die as the season drags on. Wolf hunters and trappers have publicly commented, “Keep stacking them,” “Not enough but a good start” and “Kill them all” in response to a recent Facebook post about Yellowstone wolves being killed in Montana.

Around one percent of Montana residents purchase a license to hunt or trap wolves per year. An even smaller proportion will actively participate in pursuing wolves. Yet hunters, trappers and government agents typically kill around 30% of the state’s wolf population, which has been estimated to total ~850 to ~1,200 wolves according to recent models. And, in Idaho, where the wolf population was estimated to total ~1,500 wolves in 2020, around 500 wolves were killed during the 2021 calendar year.

A trail of wolf paw print tracks in the snow on Fountain Freight Road in Yellowstone National Park.

Photo: Jacob W. Frank/NPS

Montana and Idaho loosened restrictions on killing wolves in 2021, driven by politicians who legalized antiquated tools such as baiting, snaring and even bounties to enable and incentivize a reduction of the wolf population. Montana also did away with the quotas in the hunting units that border the northern part of the park: In areas where only one wolf could be killed per season in past years, there is now no limit on how many wolves can be killed. Under the grimmest of possible scenarios, an entire Yellowstone wolf pack could be legally lured across the park boundary with bait and killed by just one or two hunters. Concerned citizens turned out in droves to oppose these new aggressive measures, but decision-makers have prioritized the desires of a politically powerful vocal minority at the expense of the larger public and the integrity of the state’s wildlife management.

Park wolves learn from a young age that humans are not a threat. Many of these wolves have had crowds of people—sometimes in the hundreds—watching them from the moment they emerged from their den. This has made them less wary, and easier to kill, than wolves living outside of a protected area. Perhaps this explains why ~10% of the wolves killed statewide in Montana by early January (at the time of publication) have been wolves that lived out their lives primarily inside Yellowstone National Park. For hunters who care about ethics, fair chase, and the general public’s level of support for hunting, luring naïve park wolves to their demise should be abhorrent.

Gray wolves peer through a car window in Yellowstone National Park.

Photo: Jim Peaco/NPS

Yellowstone hosted nearly 4.5 million visitors in 2021. The chance of seeing wolves and other rare wildlife is a huge draw. Wildlife guides, photographers and local business owners who operate in and around Yellowstone National park recently called for reinstated protections for wolves in the Northern Rockies, citing the impacts of wolf killing on their businesses, jobs and local tourism and recreation economies. Research has shown—unsurprisingly—that killing wolves in areas adjacent to parks can reduce wolf sightings within the parks, even when there is little impact on the overall population size. 

Many thousands of park-goers will enjoy watching an individual Yellowstone wolf over the course of a single season. It only takes one hunter or trapper to remove that animal forever, with ripple effects that reach well beyond park, community and state borders. While management authority over wildlife can shift between the federal government and state governments depending on land ownership, killing wolves that step (even briefly) outside of the park’s boundaries disrespects and harms the mission of the National Park Service, the world-renowned Yellowstone wolf research project, and the American public that shares in proud ownership of our national parks and wildlife.

The spectacular Yellowstone landscape was set aside in 1872 as the world's first National Park to be held in trust for all citizens, though it had been inhabited and held sacred by Native Americans for thousands of years.

Photo: Gintarė Kairaitytė from Pexels

The recent push to kill more wolves in Montana and Idaho has been driven by a larger political machine fueled by an anti-predator campaign. Misinformation and fear mongering are pervasive, including the assertion that wolves are decimating elk populations that are desirable to hunters. But while wolves are being slaughtered across western Montana, state wildlife managers are embroiled in conflict over the best means to reduce elk populations that have ballooned beyond the state’s intended objectives in some of those same areas. The justifications that have been repeatedly used to push for extreme wolf killing have been disingenuous, and the ecological and social value of wolves has been repeatedly ignored.

The growing death toll for Yellowstone wolves is a revealing microcosm of the larger mismanagement of wolves occurring across multiple states. In order to restore science, integrity and democracy to wildlife management, Interior Secretary Haaland must immediately restore federal protections to wolves in the Northern Rockies.

Take action below to ask Secretary Haaland to protect Yellowstone wolves and all wolves in the Northern Rockies from senseless killing. And if you are a resident of Montana, contact Governor Gianforte to let him know that you oppose the extreme direction the state has taken with wolf management and urge him to take immediate action to prevent the loss of more Yellowstone wolves.

Urge Sec. Haaland to restore protections to gray wolves in the Northern Rockies

About the Authors

Jennifer Sherry

Wildlife Science and Policy Specialist, Nature Program

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