Hunters Have Killed 24 Yellowstone Gray Wolves So Far This Season—the Most in Over 25 Years

An entire pack may have been ‘eliminated’ near the park’s vulnerable border in Montana, where hunting restrictions were gutted last year

Junction Butte Pack photographed from a fixed-wing during wolf study
The Junction Butte Pack photographed from plane during wolf study in 2019. NPS/Dan Stahler via Flickr under Public Domain

Hunters have killed 24 Yellowstone gray wolves that roamed outside the park so far this hunting season—the most in a single season since wolves were reintroduced to the national park in 1995, according to the National Park Service’s list of confirmed wolf mortalities.

Park officials say the deaths are “a significant setback for the species’ long-term viability and for wolf research,” reports Matthew Brown reports for the Associated Press. One of the park’s packs, the Phantom Lake Pack, is now considered “eliminated,” after most or all of the wolves were killed. An estimated 90 wolves remain in Yellowstone National Park, per NPS.

Amid mounting criticism over the losses, officials in Montana—where 19 Yellowstone wolves were killed—moved to “shut down gray wolf hunting in a portion of the state” near the park, per the AP’s Brown, who first reported the record-breaking deaths in January. An additional three Yellowstone wolves in Wyoming and two more in Idaho, per NPS.

However, state wildlife commissioners fell short of reinstating quotas near park boundaries meant to restrict how many gray wolves can be harvested near the park’s northern border, per AP.

Wolf hunting season in Montana began September 15, 2021, and runs until March 15, 2022, according to the state’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks department. Within the first week, three gray wolves—two female pups and a female yearling—from the Junction Butte pack were killed outside the park’s northern boundary, AP reported at the time. With the addition of recent kills, the “most-observed pack in Yellowstone” is now down to 24 members, per NPS.

Junction Butte Pack Wolves

“Yellowstone wolves in the northern range spend an estimated 5% of the time outside the park, usually in late fall,” according to a National Park Service statement updated in January. When they do leave the park, they venture into Montana’s Wildlife Region 3, specifically wolf management units 313 (Gardiner) and 316 (Cooke City), which represent only 2 percent of the state’s wolf population, per NPS.

However, in total, Region 3 accounts for 18 percent of the state population, so the hunting threshold is set at 82 wolves, reports The Hill’s Brad Dress. So far, 79 wolves have been killed in Region 3 and 19 of those were from park packs. Yellowstone wolves made up 90 percent of deaths in the Gardiner and Cooke City wolf management units along the park’s border, according to Montana’s most recent numbers. For more than a decade, wolf quotas limited the number of wolves that could be harvested from these units to only a few, per NPS.

“Yellowstone plays a vital role in Montana’s wildlife conservation efforts and its economy. These wolves are part of our balanced ecosystem here and represent one of the special parts of the park that draw visitors from around the globe,” said Yellowstone National Park superintendent Cam Sholly in a statement last fall. “We will continue to work with the state of Montana to make the case for reinstating quotas that would protect the core wolf population in Yellowstone.”

Why 1995 Was a Big Year for Grey Wolves in Yellowstone

Past Yellowstone’s boundaries, hunters have harvested 205 wolves statewide since September, with a month left in the season. If 450 or more wolves are harvested before the season ends, or if any of the regional thresholds in the state set are met, Montana officials will meet to discuss adjustments to the regulations. An estimated 1,100 individuals live in Montana, according to the latest annual report.

The fate of wolves was left in the hands of state governments since the final days of the Trump administration, when wolves across most of the lower 48 states were stripped of Endangered Species Act protections, the AP’s Todd Richmond reported last fall. In August 2021, the Biden administration did not intervene to uphold protections for wolves either, the AP’s Brown and John Flesher reported in August 2021.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service stated last September that they would examine whether gray wolves should be relisted as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Per a USFWS statement, “the public can play an important role by submitting relevant information to inform the in-depth status review through, Docket Number: FWS-HQ-ES-2021-0106.”

In fall 2021, several Native American tribes have asked the Biden administration to enact emergency protections for wolves and to relist them, per the AP’s Richmond.

A letter from groups representing the tribes to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland states: “Had either the Trump or Biden Administrations consulted tribal nations, as treaty and trust responsibilities require, they would have heard that as a sacred creature, the wolf is an integral part of the land-based identity that shapes our communities, beliefs, customs and traditions. The land, and all that it contains, is our temple.”

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