Where are the wolves?
This was the question asked by our group of wolf advocates as well as many visitors we spoke with at the park. When I first visited Yellowstone National Park (YNP) in October, also with the Wolves of the Rockies crew, we saw wolves each day we were out. Of course, this is denning season so one expects wolves to be less visible, but there is much more behind their absence than this.
According to a recent statement made by Yellowstone National Park, “The number of wolves in the northern portion of Yellowstone decreased from 94 in December 2007 to 34 by December 14, 2012 due to wolves killing each other, food stress, disease, and human-caused mortality inside and outside the park. Park-wide, the number of wolves in Yellowstone declined from 171 in December 2007 to 82 in December 2012 due to the same reasons.”
Some reports state there are as few as 20 to 25 mature wolves remaining in the northern area of the park, with only 3 adults left in the Lamar Canyon pack. No wonder we weren’t spotting wolves in the Lamar Valley. There are currently twice as many in Oregon than in what is known as the American Serengeti, traditionally the best place anywhere to see wolves in the wild.
The Park Service plan was, and still is, to allow wolves in Yellowstone to maintain a natural existence, devoid of human interference. As much as possible that is. But they have also made it clear that once wolves trot over the invisible border of YNP into the shooting range of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, “The Park Service has no management authority over wildlife outside the park.”
So when the dozen Yellowstone wolves were legally shot this season, half of them collared, and the deaths affecting 7 out of 10 packs, there wasn’t much the Park could do.
But cries erupted from elsewhere in the world. Outside Magazine, in an article about the death of the much loved Alpha female ’06, wrote, “The news was picked up by the New York Times (which ran three stories about the killing), ABC News, NPR, the Los Angeles Times, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Guardian in Britain, and London’s Daily Mail.”
Wolf advocacy groups hollered as well. Wolves of the Rockies and many others lobbied the wildlife commissioners for a safe zone at the northern edge of the park, near Gardiner. This was granted, and we rejoiced until three weeks later a Montana judge overturned the ruling and the buffer zone was removed.
Buffer zones are essential to protecting wolves in our National Parks. This year, Alaska’s Denali NP reported an all time low of only 48 wolves. This is due at least in part to the 2010 removal of a trap-free and hunt-free area surrounding the park. Wolf pelts bring at least $100, a sad incentive for many to continue trapping.
Meanwhile, wolves surrounding YNP have also suffered significant losses. According to the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Idaho has reported 317 killed, Wyoming 42, and Montana 225–with plans underway to significantly reduce populations in the next season. So much for the theory of appeasing hunters by allowing them to take a few wolves. They are taking as many as they possibly can, and still want more.
Last week’s trip was wonderful in many ways. Friendships were sealed, strategies to help wolves were discussed until late in the night. We rose early (some earlier than others) and enjoyed our time in the park. We saw bear, both blacks and grizzlies, coyote, otter, a confrontation between a mother fox and a raiding badger. We hiked along lovely lakes and beside marmot communities, and we watched raptors and pronghorn and elk and bison through our binoculars. Yet for most of us, the absence of wolves was deeply felt.
Invariably, I feel a need to instill hope, both for myself and others. One of many long discussion I had with Kc York, tireless supporter for the anti-trapping group Footloose Montana, sewed new seeds for optimism in our battle to protect wolves and other wildlife, as well as other maligned entities. Kc and I discussed how, because people have fought hard for what is right, our world has changed in many positive ways, and many of these victories have happened in our lifetime.
For example, the national child labor law to protect minors was finally passed in 1938, just after the depression. The Marine Mammal Protection Act was enacted in 1974. In 2007 NFL star Michael Vick spent 21 months in prison for his involvement with a dog fighting ring, a widespread crime that goes unpunished more often than not. And in 2009 the Lily Ledbetter Act was signed into effect, extending workers (usually women) the right to collect for wages that had been lost due to discrimination. There are many more success stories, and it does us good to recall them.
As it does to imagine that in the foreseeable future we may well live in a country that decries atrocities like trapping and trophy hunting. Things can change. The majority of us already know the cruelty inherent to these forms of “recreation.” And if we keep talking, keep campaigning, and keep fighting, we will change history for the better.
Find your way to contribute, be it with educating others, supporting worthy nonprofits, speaking up at local hearings, petitioning, writing, making calls, whatever. Just don’t give up!
This link to Wolves of the Rockies website details one way to speak out in support of Montana wolves.