Because of their endangered status, wolves were missing from one of the most popular parks in the United States, Yellowstone National Park. In 1974, the gray wolf was listed as endangered in the continental United States. After reintroduction efforts to save the wolves, their status in two of the three Distinct Population Segments (DPS) established by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Western and Eastern DPS, was downgraded to “threatened” in April of 2003. Sadly, however, the effort to save these wolves hasn’t spread through all of the areas that the wolves populate; the wolves in the Southwestern DPS are still classified as endangered.
This reintroduction program was seen as controversial when it was introduced in March of 1995, and this furthered in 1997 when one of these wolves, called number 27, killed nearly 50 sheep in Yellowstone and was put down. This is compared to the average four or five sheep that are killed by wolves per year, so wolves usually aren’t a problem for ranchers. However, this was the only wolf out of its group of 31 that were brought down from Canada to live in Yellowstone that was not able to acclimate to its new surroundings.
As of 2011, there are at least 98 wolves in Yellowstone National Park in 10 packs with 2 lone wolves and 8 breeding pairs. The average size of these 10 packs is 10.2, the largest having 19 and the smallest having 3. The number of wolves and breeding pairs is nearly unchanged since 2010. The population has declined about 60% in the northern range since 2007. This is likely because the population of elk, the main diet of wolves in this area, is smaller here. Wolves in the interior area have thrived better because they have been able to also hunt bison.
More recently, seven wolves, all of which were wearing collars placed on them by park biologists in order to collect data from the wolves’ travels, were killed by hunters outside of the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. Conservationists now worry that hunting in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming (the three states surrounding Yellowstone) will hurt the carefully managed wolf population that was so hard to build up. This issue is very important to the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, an organization dedicated to, according to their website, “protecting the lands, waters, and wildlife of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, now and for future generations.” According to Jeff Welsch, the communications director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, these wolves were killed too far away from ranches for it to have been a problem of the wolves killing livestock. This organization also recognizes that these wolves were some of the most photographed and viewed wolves in the world because of the packs they belonged to, and that it is urgent that better approaches be taken for managing wolves around Yellowstone.
Kim Bean, a member of the Wolves of the Rockies organization, says that it is “obvious” that these wolves were targeted mainly because they were collared by the park, and that “it is a known statement that’s thrown around all the time by the anti-wolf crowd, that it is a prize to get a collared wolf.” If an alpha wolf is killed, it can greatly disrupt the entire pack. The chief of Yellowstone’s Center for Resources, David Hallac, doesn’t think that these wolves dying will have that great of an impact on the entire population. However, Hallac also explains that the only reason that they knew these wolves were killed was because they wore collars, and that it is a great possibility that even more wolves were harvested by hunters. Bean suggests that a buffer zone around the park would help save some of these wolves.