Researchers estimate that 10 wolves from Yellowstone National Park have been killed by hunters this month, severely affecting the park’s wolf research programs, one of the longest studies of its kind.
The wolves have been tracked since their reintroduction in 1995. The killings came just as the scientists were set to begin the wolf project’s annual winter survey of their predatory habits.
The wolves were shot by licensed hunters outside the national park, during the legal wolf hunting season that started in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming in the fall. Seven of these wolves were wearing radio collars to help the scientists track them. Two were the only collared members of distinct packs, so these packs can no longer be tracked. Another two of the wolves had specialized GPS collars that collected data every 30 minutes. These collars have helped researchers better understand the wolves’ movements and predatory behaviors. There’s only one wolf left in the study which has such a collar.
All of the wolves were within 1 to 3 miles of the park’s unmarked boundary when they were killed. The wolves could have been in pursuit of prey, since the park’s elk migrate out of the park at this time of the year. They could have also been enticed by the gut piles hunters leave behind after shooting and dressing out an elk. There are many professional hunting camps set up around the park’s boundaries close to elk migration routes. The wolves were used to humans, which could have made them vulnerable to hunting.
This is the second time in three years that collared Yellowstone research wolves have been shot by hunters. Some worry that hunters are targeting the radio-collared animals even though the collars were returned to the park’s wolf project by the hunters.
Wolves are protected inside the park, but they can be shot as soon as they leave it. Wolves were removed from the federal endangered species list in May 2011.
The park’s wolf population remains healthy, with about 88 individuals, and plays a role in tourism to the park. A 2006 university study estimated that the wolves draw in $35 million a year in tourist dollars to the park and surrounding areas.
Scientists were trying to understand the wolves’ impact on elk. Park officials and conservationists have been lobbying officials in three states to establish a buffer zone around the park to protect the wolves from hunting, but only Montana has done so.