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Wolves in Yellowstone Part I: Can hunting and tourism co-exist?

Posted at 6:41 PM, Jan 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-19 20:41:26-05

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK - As of today, 21 wolves that are part of Yellowstone National Park packs, have been killed by hunters this season. Most of those were killed in Montana.

Reacting to the wolf hunters' success, Emil McCain the owner of Yellowstone Wild Tours said, “There’s no reason to hunt Yellowstone wolves.”

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Reacting to the wolf hunters' success, Emil McCain the owner of Yellowstone Wild Tours said, “There’s no reason to hunt Yellowstone wolves.”

McCain has a good reason for his point of view. He makes his living showing park wolves to paying customers. But Montana lawmakers and Governor Greg Gianforte say wolves threaten the agriculture and hunting industries and passed sweeping changes in Montana game laws during the last legislative session. The new rules laid out in clear terms to the state fish and game commission make killing park wolves much easier and much more likely.

Ken McDonald with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks quoted from the law expanding wolf hunting. He read, “The commission shall establish by rule, hunting and trapping seasons for wolves with the intent to reduce the wolf population in the state.”

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Ken McDonald with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks quoted from the law expanding wolf hunting.

That includes the use of bait, night hunting, extended hunting seasons, much higher bag limits and larger quotas everywhere, including hunting zones that border the park.

“To actually see that number, 20 wolves from the park’s packs having been taken so far, was a shock,” said Nathan Varley, owner of Yellowstone Wolf Tracker.

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“To actually see that number, 20 wolves from the park’s packs having been taken so far, was a shock,” said Nathan Varley, owner of Yellowstone Wolf Tracker.

Here’s what the wolf harvest so far looks like by pack; 7 wolves in the Junction Butte pack, 7 in the Phantom Lake pack, 2 from Wapiti Lake, One from Mollie’s, 2 from Bechler in the southwest corner of Yellowstone, and two from unidentified northern Yellowstone packs.

According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, 16 of those were killed in Montana. The Park Service says two were killed in Wyoming and two in Idaho. It’s estimated this leaves 94 wolves left alive in the park. (Click here for the latest wolf harvest numbers.)

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While expanding wolf hunting and making it easier to bait them out of the park to kill them may be a political statement for some, it’s an economic disaster for others.

The wolf harvest led Park Superintendent Cam Sholly to write Montana Governor Greg Gianforte asking him to halt hunting in the two zones that border the park.

Sholly wrote, “The positive economic impacts of visitors viewing wolves in Yellowstone is estimated to be well over $30 million annually, most of which is spent in Montana communities and counties.”

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The wolf harvest led Park Superintendent Cam Sholly to write Montana Governor Greg Gianforte asking him to halt hunting in the two zones that border the park.

Even though Montana’s new wolf hunting rules were directed by lawmakers and signed by the Governor, Gianforte wrote back to Sholly saying he would send the Park’s concerns to the state Fish and Wildlife Commission.

He reminded Sholly, “Once a wolf exits the park and enters lands in the State of Montana, it may be harvested pursuant to regulations established by the Commission under Montana law.”

FWP’s Ken McDonald suggests there may be too many Yellowstone wolves. He said, “Instead of having maybe an artificial population in one little area, that wolves are still out there and available to be viewed, but they’re just not going to be in a concentrated area.”

Emil McCain counters that this is a misunderstanding of the Yellowstone dynamic. He said, “The assumption that any wildlife in the park is managed, is false. The only management done in Yellowstone National Park is to not manage.”

McCain said wolves primarily hunt elk and the northern part of the park is home to a large elk herd. He said that’s why more wolves are found there.

Sholly, who declined to be interviewed for this story, wrote, “The State’s data shows little to no wolf-related depredation incidents occurring in Northern Yellowstone and also shows that the elk population in Northern Yellowstone is “At” the population objectives.”

So far, 69 wolves have been harvested in Region Three, next to the park. 25 percent of those are from just two management units that border the park. Once 82 wolves have been taken in the region, the Fish and Wildlife Commission will review its quotas.

“The management is being decided by politics and not by scientists and there’s this anti-predator hysteria you know in the state legislatures,” said Bonnie Rice at the Bozeman Sierra Club office.

“The positive economic impacts of visitors viewing wolves in Yellowstone is estimated to be well over $30 million annually, most of which is spent in Montana communities and counties.”
Cam Sholly

Local hunting guides, including one that offers guided wolf hunts, did not return our calls or emails. The Executive Director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, Mac Minard, did not return our calls, but speaking to the Associated Press questioned whether the wolves killed outside the park should even be considered park wolves.

He said, “That just doesn’t make sense. Why aren’t they Montana wolves that just happened to go into the Park?”

While expanding wolf hunting and making it easier to bait them out of the park to kill them may be a political statement for some, it’s an economic disaster for others.

McCain claimed it hurts local businesses. He said, “Those animals are under attack and therefore our tourism economy is under attack.”

VIDEO EXTRA:

VIDEO EXTRA: Emil McCain the owner of Yellowstone Wild Tours

RELATED: A look at the story of wolf restoration in Yellowstone National Park