Western environmental groups call for gray wolves to be relisted after 20 killed near Yellowstone

Federal official has asked Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte to halt wolf harvest near park boundaries

By: - January 11, 2022 3:51 am
wolf crosses road in Yellowstone

A wolf makes its way across a road in Yellowstone National Park. (Jacob W. Frank/Courtesy of the U.S. National Park Service)

A coalition of Western environmental organizations is calling for the U.S. Department of the Interior to relist gray wolves in the northern Rockies on an emergency basis following reports that hunters had killed 20 wolves from Yellowstone National Park that wandered from the park’s boundary into surrounding states since the back half of 2021.

Fifteen of those wolves were killed in Montana, including the majority of the Phantom Lake Pack, the park told the Associated Press. Around 94 remain in Yellowstone. By comparison, no more than a dozen Yellowstone wolves had been killed in the states that border the park per year since 2011, according to data provided by the park.

The organizations, which include ZooMontana, Wolves of the Rockies, Animal Wellness Action and a number of others, are seeking for U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to exercise a provision in the Endangered Species Act allowing her to list any species as endangered for 240 days if the secretary determines a “significant immediate risk for survival.” The environmental groups argue that policies passed in Montana and Idaho relaxing wolf hunting restrictions have put gray wolves in the Rockies in such danger.

“The assault on wolves, and this sudden reduction in their numbers in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, is one very ugly feature of the larger assault on wolves in the Northern Rockies range,” reads the letter, addressed to Chuck Sams, the director of the National Park Service. “A pause in the killing will protect surviving wolves and allow the wildlife professionals within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to review the devastating impact of Montana and Idaho’s expanded killing programs.

“A failure to act will leave a genetically depleted community of wolves, destroy pack social structures, and unwind a quarter-century-long effort to restore wolves in America’s best-known national park and most closely studied and observed wolf community.”

Yellowstone officials have also raised alarms about Montana’s new hunting regulations, and Superintendent Cameron Sholly has asked Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte to halt wolf hunting near the park due to wolf harvests not seen since the species was reintroduced to Yellowstone in the 1990s, the AP reported.

Wolf hunting allowed in Montana since 2011

Hunting is not allowed within national park boundaries, but animals that leave the park are fair game. Wolf hunting has been allowed in Montana since gray wolves were fully delisted in 2011, though quotas restricted the number of wolves that could be killed close to the park: usually only two or three per hunting district per season.

But more aggressive management of predator species was a key priority for the Republican-led Montana Legislature, which this year passed a series of bills in 2021 legalizing new forms of hunting and trapping and directing the Fish and Wildlife Commission to reduce wolf numbers. Proponents argued that wolves were going after livestock and destabilizing populations of other game, like elk. Policies approved by the commission in August eliminated quotas in the districts bordering the park, permitted night hunting on private land, bait trapping and other expanded means.

12-16-21 Governor Montana – Final Letter – Wolves

The regulations include harvest thresholds that automatically initiate review by the commission: 450 statewide and a certain number for each commission region, including 82 in Region 3, which contains all of the districts that border Yellowstone. This season, 64 have been killed in the region, according the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, out of 152 overall.

“There are no buffer areas for the wolves around the park, and wolves roam across the arbitrary park boundaries into the larger ecosystem that constitutes their range,” the coalition letter reads.

In a recent letter to Gianforte, Sholly asked for quotas in areas near the park to be restored, writing that the number of wolves killed in the two management units north of the park boundary exceeds the harvest of park wolves in those units in any other year.

“Quotas were originally put into place not only to protect the Yellowstone wolf population, but also to protect the corresponding economic and tourism interests of Montana that are derived from wolf watching in the park,” Sholly wrote December 16.

He pointed out, additionally, that elk populations were at or exceeding management targets in the region surrounding the park, and that there had been “little to no” wolf depredation in northern Yellowstone.

“While you understandably expect me to consider the impacts of Yellowstone decision making on Montana, I am again asking that you similarly consider the impacts of Montana’s decision making on Yellowstone,” he wrote.

Montana Gov. Gianforte responds

In his response, Gianforte said that wolves that leave the boundaries of the park and enter Montana hunting districts may be harvested pursuant to Fish and Wildlife Commission regulations, and that those regulations would prevent overhunting. The governor, who received a written warning from FWP after trapping and shooting a collared wolf near Yellowstone in February without a required training, said in a letter he would forward the park’s concerns to the commission.

Lesley Robinson, the Gianforte-appointed commission chair, could not be reached for comment Friday.

At the federal level, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in September it would examine relisting the species following a pair of petitions from environmental groups. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, had previously stood by a Trump-era decision to finalize the removal of Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves.

“The Service is currently evaluating the status of gray wolves in the Northern Rockies and more broadly, the Western U.S. to determine whether Endangered Species Act protection is again warranted,” a spokeswoman for the agency said Friday. “In the course of that review, we will assess whether the recent changes in state management are adequate to ensure that wolves in the Western U.S. are sustained at a healthy and secure population level.”

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. He has also worked for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.