Killing Wolves-Yellowstone

This March 21, 2019 file photo shows the Junction Butte wolf pack taken from an aircraft in Yellowstone National Park.

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Dozens of groups have signed a petition urging the federal government to prohibit wolf hunting and trapping in areas directly bordering Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, citing public safety concerns.

Petitioners are requesting 5-mile setbacks that would eliminate wolf hunting and trapping on all U.S. Forest Service land around the two national parks. The federal agency manages much of the land that directly borders Yellowstone and Grand Teton.

Members of more than 30 conservation groups and wildlife watching companies signed the petition addressed to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. The owner of a ranch in Wyoming, an Ojibwe artist and a Yellowstone naturalist also signed on.

The groups wrote in the petition that setbacks just around the parks’ borders are necessary to keep the public safe and to prevent conflict between hunters, trappers and wildlife watchers. Tens of thousands of visitors share trails with wolf hunters, they wrote.

Park visitors who hike on trails that cross over into national forest are “in a zone where there could be random bullets flying around by hunters shooting at wolves,” according to the petition. Groups add that during trapping seasons, hikers on these trails could step into wolf foothold traps or snares.

Nathan Varley, a petitioner and the owner of the Yellowstone Wolf Tracker Wildlife Adventure Co. in Gardiner, said that over the past month, his company’s guides and their clients have been sharing roads, trails and drainages in Yellowstone with wolf hunters.

The hunters have been using trails in the park — especially the Slough Creek Trail in north Yellowstone — to access spots just beyond the border where they can legally hunt for wolves, according to Varley.

The dynamic is hurtful for visitors who come to the park specifically to see wolves, he said. Varley worries the situation could become more volatile if hunting and trapping setbacks aren’t introduced.

“I just think that when you have this kind of a situation, it’s oil and water,” he said.

“Traditionally, a lot of these different user types have been pretty well-separated in terms of the areas that they’re using.”

Montana’s wolf trapping season opens in late November, but its wolf hunting season has already been open for over a month.

So far, hunters in the state have killed 36 wolves, 17 of which were hunted in southwest Montana’s Region 3, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Out of 36 total wolves taken in the state, 12 were hunted in wolf management units that directly border Yellowstone National Park to its north and west.

Quotas used to limit wolf harvests to just one per year total in the two units just north of Yellowstone, but those quotas were eliminated following Montana’s 2021 legislative session.

This spring, the Republican-dominated Montana Legislature passed bills that liberalized wolf hunting and trapping regulations. Montana’s new laws extend wolf hunting and trapping seasons by about a month, allow people to bait wolves, hunt them at night and let trappers snare wolves.

Hunters and trappers can now kill up to 10 wolves per person, even in management units 313 and 316 near Gardiner and Cooke City, just north of Yellowstone.

Bill sponsors argued that the new rules would give wildlife managers, livestock producers and sportsmen more tools for reducing wolf populations in Montana. They claimed that wolf numbers were over objective in some areas of the state, and ungulate populations were suffering because of it.

Stephen Capra, the lead signatory on the petition and the executive director of Footloose Montana, said Montana’s Legislature and governor have been “creating policies that are designed to eliminate wolves from the wild.”

“At a bare minimum, we have to create a boundary around Yellowstone,” Capra said. “This 5-mile buffer is really designed to acknowledge the fact that the value of those wolves is so large that there needs to be a level of protection and a level of common decency that prevents this from continuing.”

Cam Sholly, Superintendent of Yellowstone, said in a September news release that park officials would work with the state of Montana “to make the case for reinstating quotas that would protect the core wolf population in Yellowstone as well as Montana’s direct economic interests derived from the hundreds of millions spent by park visitors each year.”

Capra said introducing setbacks on Forest Service land around Yellowstone and Grand Teton is a common-sense way for the Biden administration to protect the most iconic wolves in the United States.

The groups’ petition was sent to Secretary Vilsack on Tuesday, and agency officials are receiving copies of the letters on Wednesday, Capra said.

“We are excited to hear what they may have to say,” he said. “I think that most people I’ve talked to view this as such a common-sense move, that they really question why there could even be controversy around it.”

During a meeting on Thursday, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission is scheduled to consider adjustments to wolf trapping regulations, according to Montana FWP.

The proposed changes include prohibiting the snaring of wolves on public land within Montana’s Lynx Protection Zones. According to the state’s furbearer trapping regulations, one of the zones lies directly north of Yellowstone National Park.

“The proposed changes are aimed at minimizing the possibility of non-target capture of lynx and grizzly bears,” FWP staff wrote. “Both species are protected under the Endangered Species Act.”

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