Alpha Male Wolf Howling (copy)

An alpha male wolf howls in the Lower Geyser Basin at Yellowstone National Park.

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Fifteen wolves have been hunted in two wolf management units directly north of Yellowstone National Park so far this winter, and wolf trapping there hasn’t begun yet.

The numbers from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks have some worrying about how the state’s wolf trapping season will impact populations in Yellowstone. Several packs are concentrated at the northern end of the park, and the animals often wander over the border into Montana.

In past years, annual quotas prevented hunters and trappers in Montana from taking more than two wolves in wolf management units 313 and 316, which border Yellowstone to its north.

The quotas were lifted this August at a Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting. Wolf hunting and trapping regulations were eased by the commission in accordance with new laws that passed the state Legislative session and were signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte this spring.

Wolf hunters and trappers can now bait and snare wolves, hunt them at night on private land and bag up to 20 wolves, with no more than 10 via hunting and no more than 10 via trapping.

A total of 124 wolves have been killed in the state since wolf hunting seasons opened in September, including 56 in southwest Montana’s Region 3, as of Saturday. In total, just under 300 wolves were killed by hunters and trappers in the state in 2019 and 2018, according to FWP’s annual harvest reports.

If 82 wolves are taken in Region 3 this season, the commission can review the numbers and may consider rapid in-season adjustments. It can also review the numbers if 450 wolves are killed statewide.

Kim Bean, vice president of the nonprofit group Wolves of the Rockies, said on Thursday that she’s heard at least 19 Yellowstone National Park wolves have been killed due to hunting and trapping in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, though she declined to disclose her source.

The Junction Butte and Phantom Lake packs — two with ranges near the northern end of the park — have lost several members due to Montana hunts this fall and winter, she said.

Park staff declined to disclose whether more of the park’s wolves have been killed since late September. Greg Lemon, a spokesperson for Montana FWP, said the department does not distinguish between Yellowstone and Montana wolves when collecting harvesting data, so it can not confirm the numbers.

“We just simply, through the harvest data, don’t track Yellowstone wolves at all,” Lemon said. “In our minds, if wolves are in a national park, they are under the management of the national park. If they are in the state, they are under our management.”

Marc Cooke, president of Wolves of the Rockies, said on Dec. 9 that at least 13 wolves from Yellowstone’s packs had been killed in outside states at the time, including 11 in Montana, according to the group’s sources.

“With trapping, we’ve been pretty fortunate in a sense,” he said earlier this month. “There hasn’t been a lot of snow, and when snow is on the group, we will see an acceleration in those that are trapped and shot …. (Trappers) can track footprints in the snow.”

Though Montana’s wolf trapping season had a default opening date on Nov. 29, trapping hasn’t begun in wolf management units 313 and 316. At a meeting in October, the Montana Fish and Wildlife commissioners voted to extend that date to Dec. 31 in areas defined as grizzly bear-occupied.

If officials determine that grizzly bears are denned for the winter, they may open up some units to trapping earlier. On Wednesday, they opened up the season in WMU 121 in northwestern Montana.

“When we’re talking about Yellowstone National Park wolves, we have so much studying going on, and that scientific data inside that park is so essential for what we know today,” Bean said. “The education that comes out of that park is global, and the more that Montana continues to attack the science that comes out of the park, we as a society are being attacked.”

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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