Yellowstone National Park's scientific research on wolves got caught in the crossfire of Montana's inaugural wolf season when hunters killed two collared wolves just north of the park earlier this month.
As the smoke has cleared, federal wolf officials are at odds over the effect of the shootings and Montana's game managers are re-examining how it will conduct its next wolf season - if there is one. Environmental groups have appealed Montana and Idaho's wolf hunting seasons in federal court.
The two collared wolves shot were a mother, 527F, and daughter, 716F. They were part of the 10-member Cottonwood pack, which ranged over the northern border of Yellowstone into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and became legal game. Two other pack members, the alpha male and a 5-month-old pup, were also shot.
527F, the Cottonwood pack's alpha female, had been collared for five years, since she was 2, providing a lengthy stream of data for Yellowstone's study of the lifetime reproductive success of breeding females, said Doug Smith, Yellowstone's wolf biologist. At age 7, she was long-lived compared with wolf populations outside the park, which are subject to control measures and typically die at age 2 or 3.
Yellowstone's studies are unique because they track an unhunted population of wolves, allowing researchers to examine the natural life cycle of wolves unaffected by human predation, their leading cause of death outside areas like Yellowstone, Smith said.
"Most wolves die outside of protected places," he said.
Another reason the Cottonwood pack was of interest to researchers is that it occupied an area that has seen a high pack turnover ratio - four packs in 12 years. Researchers are trying to determine why.
With the loss of the pack's only two collared wolves, biologists also lose contact with the rest of the pack, so their fate is unknown. Yellowstone's Wolf Project tries to collar at least one wolf in every pack to track them.
The loss of two collared wolves out of a park population of more than 120 wolves in 12 packs was deemed insignificant by Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"It's not a big deal," Bangs said. "Certainly from a research standpoint, you'd like them all to stay alive."
The loss of the wolves is biologically inconsequential, he said, since wolves die all the time and packs dissolve.
Smith disagrees, saying the loss does affect the park's research, though not critically.
"It just so happens that it falls in the northern region of the park's wolf population where we have the best data," Smith said. "It's our best study area. It does affect the situation a little bit more."
Bangs prefers to look at the broader picture.
"What I keep reminding everybody is that wolf recovery has been a tremendous success," he said. An estimated 500 wolves live in Montana, with a total of 1,600 in the region that includes Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
The introduction of a hunting season, shooting of collared wolves and the fact that 527F had long been in the public eye all elevated the story to the national level.
"This blew sky high," Smith said. "The amount of interest in this was a shock to me."
Part of the reason may be that wolf 527F makes a strong lead character in the drama. Born to the Druid Peak pack in the Lamar Valley, the black wolf eventually left Druid to join the Slough Creek pack. While there, she was involved in an epic animal showdown in 2006. 527F and other female wolves of the Slough pack, including her daughter 716F, lived through a two-week siege laid by rival wolves. No Slough pups survived the encounter.
"That type of behavior, at a den next to the road, she had a huge following," Smith said. "So this has been part of the sensation."
Last winter, 527F joined with other wolves and her daughter in a new region. This spring, she had a litter of four pups in a den within a mile of a popular hiking trail. Smith said the park waits to name packs until they have pups. So this spring, the Cottonwood pack was born. The animals were easily visible from the Hellroaring overlook, once again making 527F a popular animal among Yellowstone's wolf watchers.
Despite any effects on his research, Smith still supports the Montana wolf hunting season.
Although some people have called for a buffer zone around Yellowstone's borders to protect packs that roam over its edges, Smith doesn't like that term. He said he'd rather see the season moved back to a time of the year that the more remote, mountainous terrain surrounding Yellowstone would be more difficult to access and when wolf pelts would be in better shape for harvest.
Smith also said he was surprised by how easily the first nine wolves were shot in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. The quick kills prompted the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to halt the wolf season in that hunting district for the rest of the year.
"They (the wolves) got caught off guard," Smith said. "Part of this dealt with the naiveté of the animals."
Season ends in WMU 3
On Sunday, FWP closed the wolf hunting season in Wolf Management Unit 3, which covers most of the southern half of Montana, after four more wolves were killed on the opening day of the general season on Sunday. Two of the wolves were from the Cougar 2 pack in the Gallatin Canyon, and two were from the Baker Mountain pack in the West Boulder River drainage of Sweet Grass County.
Under the state's wolf hunting regulations, wolf kills must be reported within 12 hours. After the quota is filled, the season ends 24 hours after FWP announces the closure - in this case, Monday night.
Carolyn Sime, wolf coordinator for FWP, said the extra wolf harvested beyond the WMU 3 quota of 12 will be subtracted from the quota in one of the other two hunting units. The statewide quota is 75 wolves, 22 in unit 2 and 41 in unit 1. So far, 23 wolves have been harvested in these two units.
Given the ease of harvest in the Absaroka-Beartooth this fall, Sime said, FWP will consider modifying its regulations for the hunting district next fall.
"The bottom line is there will be an adjustment," she said, adding that it would balance the interests of wolf advocates with those of hunters.
Brett French can be reached at email@example.com or at 657-1387.