The New Threat to Wolves in and Around Yellowstone
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — The vast, sagebrush-studded valleys in this huge chunk of wild country, teeming with herds of elk and bison, are home these days to 10 packs of wolves.
Once among the first species to be listed as endangered, the gray wolf has made a healthy comeback within Yellowstone National Park and its bordering states. Since 1995-96 when 31 wolves were trucked into the park from Canada, their numbers have grown and stabilized to the point that officials could essentially post a “no vacancy sign” at Yellowstone. That’s because the park’s wolf population has hovered for the last decade at 100, give or take, which experts consider Yellowstone’s carrying capacity.
Protected on parkland, gray wolves show little fear of humans, often living out their lives within view of roads. They attract thousands of tourists a year who sometimes become witnesses to the life-or-death dramas between predator and prey.
And some catch a glimpse of a rare white wolf.
“Yellowstone is the best place in the world to view wolves,” said Douglas Smith, the park’s wolf biologist, as he hiked up a fog-shrouded hill searching for one of the packs.
The sprawling 2.2 million-acre park acts as a laboratory for Dr. Smith and other scientists, who are conducting a long-term study of this very rare population of wolves — unusual because they are neither shot nor trapped. And it turns out a wolf protected from human killing is a very different animal from those that are hunted.
That may change, researchers say, as more hunting is allowed in the states that surround the park.
As the packs grew, many wolves roamed outside the national park, replenishing the wild lands. Wolves now number about 1,700 in the Western states of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington. Threats to livestock have intensified in recent years, pitting ranchers against conservationists and prompting some states to permit limited wolf hunting again at certain times.