Montana wildlife commissioners on Friday decided to halt gray wolf hunting in part of the state around Yellowstone National Park, amid growing criticism of record numbers of animals being shot or trapped after crossed park boundaries this winter.
But commissioners have rejected calls to revive quotas that would limit the number of wolves killed along Yellowstone’s northern border to just a few per year. Those longstanding quotas were lifted last year after Republican lawmakers passed laws aimed at reducing the wolf population by making it easier to kill the animals.
Yellowstone officials had urged the state beginning in mid-December to suspend hunting in certain areas along the park border. They said the deaths marked a significant setback to the long-term viability of Yellowstone’s famous wolf packs.
Under Friday’s unanimous commission vote, hunting and trapping of wolves in southwestern Montana will be banned once the region’s kill count reaches 82 animals. So far, 76 people have reportedly been killed in this area.
Twenty-three wolves from the park’s packs have been killed so far this winter — 18 in Montana, three in Wyoming and two in Idaho, according to Yellowstone officials. This is the highest in a season since predators were reestablished in the Rocky Mountains of the northern United States more than 25 years ago after being largely decimated in the last century.
The park is now down to 91 wolves, spokesman Morgan Warthin said.
Pushed by ranchers and hunters who want fewer wolves, Republican lawmakers in Montana and Idaho last year relaxed hunting and trapping laws to allow night hunting, higher harvest limits, the use of snares and even aerial hunting in Idaho. Montana also eliminated long-standing quotas.
Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte told Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly in a recent letter that once a wolf leaves the park and enters Montana, it can be killed under state rules. Gianforte trapped and killed a Yellowstone radio-collared wolf last year on private land near the park. He then received a warning for violating state hunting rules by killing the wolf without first completing a mandatory trapper’s course.
Sholly told wildlife commissioners in a letter released Friday that wolves in the park spend only 5% of their time outside the park. In the past three years, Sholly wrote, there has been only one cattle attack by wolves in Park County, Montana, just north of Yellowstone. Such attacks are frequently cited by ranchers wishing to reduce wolf numbers.
The 184 wolves killed statewide so far this season are consistent with recent years, Montana officials said. There are over 1,000 wolves in the state.
“We have a legal obligation to reduce the wolf population,” Patrick Tabor, vice chairman of Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission, said ahead of Friday’s vote.
But the killings just outside of Yellowstone have infuriated wildlife advocates and prompted condemnation of some businesses that depend on park tourism.
One pack – the Phantom Lake Pack – is now considered “eliminated” after most or all of its members have been killed over a two-month period starting in October, according to the park.
Nature guide Cara McGary, who leads tourists on wildlife-spotting tours in the park from Gardiner, Montana, said hunting along the park’s border targets wolves where their greatest value economic was to be alive so that tourists could see them.
“They’re the most visible wolves in the lower 48s, if not the world,” McGary said. “The same packs my clients pay me to see on every wildlife viewing tour throughout the year… What is the rationale for this damage?”
Wolf season for the rest of Montana is scheduled to continue through March 15. State regulations allow the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission to revise hunting seasons for different regions of the state when their individual harvest thresholds are reached, or statewide when the total number killed reaches 450 wolves.
The increasingly aggressive attitude toward predators among state lawmakers has raised concerns within the federal government that overhunting could scuttle the costly effort to restore wolves in western wilderness areas.
In September, the US Fish and Wildlife Service said it would consider whether federal endangered species protections should be reimposed for more than 2,000 wolves in six northern US Rocky Mountain states, including Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
Those protections were lifted a decade ago, in part based on assurances that states would maintain viable wolf populations.