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Montana wolf hunt is stalked by controversy

The demise of a much-studied pack raises questions about lifting the hunting ban in areas bordering Yellowstone park.

October 25, 2009|Kim Murphy

GARDINER, MONT. — Wolf 527 was a survivor. She lived through a rival pack's crippling 12-day siege of her den. When another pair of wolves laid down stakes in her territory, she killed the mother and picked off the pups while the invader's mate howled nearby in frustration and fury.

She was not a charmer. But successful wolves are not known for their geniality. She was large and black and wary -- and cruel when she needed to be. As the alpha female of the Cottonwood Creek pack, she also was equipped with a radio collar so wildlife biologists could track her movements, making her one of Yellowstone National Park's best-known wolves.

Then she ventured outside the park boundaries.

Wolf 527 was killed Oct. 3 by a hunter on Buffalo Plateau north of Yellowstone, less than three weeks into Montana's backcountry elk season. Wolves often stalk elk outside the park and are attracted by entrails the hunters leave behind. But this year, the elk season coincided with the opening of the state's first wolf hunt in modern times.

"She was a genius wolf in her tactics," said Laurie Lyman, a former San Diego County teacher who has spent the last five years tracking the recovery of the endangered gray wolves that were reintroduced into Yellowstone in 1995. "Her strategies were just unbelievable. She knew how to survive anything, but she didn't know how to survive a man with a gun."

Park officials believe four of the Cottonwood pack's 10 wolves -- including 527's mate, the alpha male, and her daughter -- died during those first weeks, in effect ending research into one of the park's most important study groups.

"Whether the pack exists anymore or not, to us the pack is gone," said Doug Smith, the biologist in charge of the Yellowstone reintroduction program that helped bring wolves back from the brink of extinction in the Northern Rockies. Cottonwood "was a key pack on the northern range," he said, giving researchers a window into the existence of animals that had little or no interaction with humans.

State wildlife officials, caught off guard by the ease with which the wolves were cut down, called off the backcountry hunt along a section of Yellowstone's northern boundary for the rest of the year.

But the general wolf hunting season opens today throughout much of the rest of Montana, including other areas bordering the 3,468-square-mile park. Wildlife advocates have sought, so far unsuccessfully, a buffer zone to protect Yellowstone's storied wolf packs.

With more than 1,600 wolves now in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, state officials are allowing hunters this year to take up to 75 in Montana and 220 in Idaho. Federal protections remain in Wyoming.

"We've got quite a number of other border packs. So people need to decide how hunting's going to occur on the park boundaries," Smith said. "Whose wolves are they? Are they national wolves? Montana wolves? And we have to decide what is the value of our research on wolf populations that are not affected by people."

Conservationists fear that allowing the wolves to be targeted just four months after they were removed from the endangered species list could damage the recovery process. They have argued for delaying a hunt until at least 2,000 wolves have gained a foothold in the region.

Yet residents who have seen livestock and elk plundered say the quota of 12 wolves in a small area immediately north of the national park is too modest to control a predator that under federal protection has broadened its territory and become shockingly adept at killing.

"Those wolves they're talking about in Yellowstone are all over the place out here. They're traveling everywhere," said Ryan Counts, a hunting guide and team-rope rodeo rider from the town of Pray, Mont. He shot Wolf 527.

"They're just decimating our elk herd and everything else. They're bothering cows all the time," Counts said. "Twelve ain't going to do any good at all, you know."

In Dillon, Mont., 180 miles northwest of Yellowstone, a rancher in late August found the carcasses of 122 purebred adult sheep strewn in bloody heaps in his pasture. It was the worst livestock predation in memory -- an example of the ability of wolves to kill for the pure pleasure of it -- and wildlife officials authorized the killing of the entire pack.

Here in the Paradise Valley, which winds through snow-dusted peaks on either side of the Yellowstone River, many blame wolves for the destruction of the northern Yellowstone elk herd, whose numbers are down 60% since the predators were reintroduced to the park from Canada.

Federal biologists say bears, drought and hunters are partly to blame for the decline, but it's hard to find anyone in these small towns who doesn't blame wolves.

"We're starting to see the wildlife just disappear," said Randy Petrich, a rancher and big-game outfitter.

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