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Perspective: Yellowstone's Slippery Slope

Environmental groups advocate no-hunting buffer zone around Yellowstone to protect wide-ranging wolves and bears.

Perspective: Yellowstone's Slippery Slope

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The petitionthat’s posted online features a grainy photo of a howling wolf, but more arresting than the image is the caption: “Tears of a Wolf. Howl… They’ll never know you’re crying.”

The implication is that wild wolves howl because they can’t sob, and if you hear the howl of a wolf, it’s because they’re despairing.

The howling-wolf image accompanies an online petition lobbying the Department of the Interior—and the federal land-management agencies under its purview—to close a 20-mile-wide band of public land surrounding Yellowstone National Park (YNP) to all wolf hunting in order to protect wolves that might roam outside the protected park during hunting season.

A related petition, and state legislation in Montana, has been circulated to add additional thousands of acres of National Forest land to the no-hunting buffer in order to protect grizzly bears from hunters, in the unlikely event that federal courts approve a griz hunt in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

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Yellowstone National Park is closed to hunting of any kind. That’s a long-standing and iron-clad federal regulation, and there is little to no opposition to it. Protection from hunting, after all, is one of the things that makes 2.2-million-acre Yellowstone a world-class wildlife refuge and the most-visited national park in the country. But the millions of acres of public lands that surround the park—the Gallatin National Forest in Montana, Bridger-Teton Forest in Wyoming and the Shoshone National Forest in Idaho—are popular places to hunt big game for hunters with the proper licenses. There’s nothing wrong or illegal about hunting outside the park. In fact, generations of Montana elk hunters who drew special permits to hunt antlerless elk in Hunting District 313 filled their tags on Deckard Flats just a few steps north of the park boundary.

But agitation to create a hunting-free buffer around Yellowstone intensified last year when a 7-year-old female wolf, called “Spitfire” by the legions of wolf-watchers in the park, was killed by a licensed Montana hunter just outside the YNP boundary. The harvest was proper, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks spokeswoman Abby Nelson.

“Everything was legitimate about the way the wolf was taken,” she told the Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News and Guide. “The circumstances are obviously a bit harder for people to stomach, because the pack had shown signs of habituation.”

Indeed, it had. “Spitfire” was a member of the Lamar Canyon Pack, one of the most photographed and observed wolf packs in the West. Some residents in the towns on the park’s border suggest that because the wolves live in such close proximity to humans, they have lost their fear of people.

The notion of habituation cuts both ways in the buffer-zone argument. Advocates of the buffer suggest that giving wolves more room to safely roam outside the park will give them more wild places to act, well, wild. Opponents claim that by hunting wolves right up to the park’s boundary, they will push wolves farther inside the park and away from people, thereby keeping them both protected and wild.


But there’s a more fundamental problem with Yellowstone’s wolves: they have become anthropomorphized by humans who consider them free-ranging pets rather than wild apex predators.

Across the world, when a wild animal is given a familiar name, it elevates the critter into quasi-protected status, diminishes its wildness and elevates the emotions that color its management. Think of “Cecil” the lion, “Travis” the chimpanzee that nearly tore the face off his human companion and “Bambi.”

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“Spitfire” was called 926F by park biologists. She was offspring of a wolf known as “06,” part of the original pack of Canadian wolves introduced to Yellowstone in 1995. That lineage is problematic for clear-eyed management of thewolves: Descendants of the original pack are considered a sort of canine royalty by Yellowstone’s rabid wolf-watchers who would like to end all hunting of wolves and who are using the buffer zone as a way to stymie the legal hunt.


Opponents of park-boundary hunting claim that not all wolves are created equal and by killing a leader of the pack the survivors are left vulnerable to internecine predation by rival packs. Other opponents claim that wolves have a much higher economic value to the park’s gateway communities by being unhunted, and observed by millions of camera-toting tourists, than they do as wildlife whose populations are managed by regulated hunting.

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“I look at the buffer-zone proposal as part of a larger plan to end hunting on public lands,” said a Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks commissioner who asked to remain nameless because the commission hasn’t voted on the topic. “If we close wolf hunting, who’s to say we don’t close elk hunting on public land next? Who’s to say the buffer zone doesn’t extend to 100 miles around the park to protect grizzlies?”

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The commission’s most persuasive argument against establishment of the buffer is data. In 2017, a total of 254 wolves were killed by either hunters or trappers in Montana. Only 14 were killed in hunting districts bordering Yellowstone. As of February 2019, 261 wolves had been reported by hunters or trappers in the state. Fifty-six were killed in hunting districts that roughly border the park, but only four were killed in the special quota zones that are immediately adjacent to the park’s most active wolf areas.The buffer-zone idea is being extended to grizzly bears in the remote case that a federal judge approves a managed hunt around Yellowstone.

But a buffer zone around the park is likely only a token gesture when it comes to wide-ranging grizzlies. Just this May, grizzly bear managers in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which includes Glacier National Park and the surrounding wilderness, reported that bears occupy about 25,000 square miles and are rapidly expanding into their pre-settlement range.

A buffer zone that protects grizzlies around either Yellowstone or Glacier from hunting would cover most of the state of Montana.

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