National Park Service transporting Canadian Wolves into Yellowstone National Park at Gardiner, Montana, for re-introduction in January 1995.
"What else does Yellowstone have to advertise?"
On a December day about 15 miles east of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, a hunter fired a shot heard around the world—he legally killed a female wolf wearing a GPS research collar. It’s not known whether the hunter was hunting wolves or looking for other game and opportunistically shot her. It’s not known if he chose to shoot the wolf wearing the radio collar. Not much is known because the hunter has chosen not to reveal himself publicly (though he was given the opportunity to for this article). He is, in all likelihood, concerned about the reaction from wolf advocates, because the wolf he shot was the most famous wolf—perhaps the most famous single wild animal—on earth.
She was also one of the most beloved by the community of wolf-watchers that has emerged with the re-introduction of wolves to Yellowstone in 1995. When word of her death hit Facebook, Twitter, and wolf-watching blogs, people all over the world were devastated. The news was picked up by the New York Times (which ran three stories about the killing), ABC News, NPR, the Los Angeles Times, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Guardian in Britain, and London’s Daily Mail.
The wolf’s collar identified her as 832F, but she was better known to tens of thousands of people internationally as the “06 Female,” the unusually big, barrel-chested alpha female of the Lamar Canyon Pack. She was not the first Yellowstone wolf killed during Wyoming’s inaugural open season on wolves (Montana and Idaho have already had two years of wolf-hunting). A few weeks earlier, her packmate, a beta male she sometimes bred with, was shot and killed in Wyoming as well.
But the killing of the ’06 Female set off a firestorm of controversy about the collision between wildlife management, science, and hunting that occurs at the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. Part of the issue was the collar she wore and what it represented. Yellowstone Wolf Project biologists had fitted the ’06 Female with a $4,000 GPS that recorded her exact location sometimes as often as every 30 minutes, providing fine-scale data points about her movements and invaluable information to the Wolf Project’s 17-year study. Her packmate that was shot, a male called 754M, had also worn a collar, though his was a simpler VHF radio telemetry model used by researchers to locate wolves and packs. In fact, four of the 11 wolves that wore collars on Yellowstone’s Northern Range were shot—legally—by hunters during the Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming wolf hunting seasons. And of the total 10 Yellowstone wolves killed outside the park, five wore research collars.
The high percentage of collared wolves harvested touched off a wave of speculation by conservationists and wolf advocates that hunters were, at a minimum, targeting wolves wearing collars. In fact, commenters on at least one pro-hunting website, Trapperman.com, admitted that they would go after collared wolves.
Laurie Lyman, one of the park’s most dedicated wolf-watchers—she retired as a schoolteacher in California to move to Silver Gate and volunteer with the Wolf Project—thinks there’s a sinister element to the deaths of some specific wolves.
“They’ve been waiting 17 years in Wyoming to kill wolves. They wanted to get those wolves because it hurts the people who watch them. They did it to stick it to us,” Lyman says. “I’ve been standing on the side of the road watching wolves and had people pull up and say to me, ‘Lady, you better take a picture of those wolves because they’re the last you’re ever going to see.’”
Lyman and Kirsty Peake—who, with her husband, purchased a home in the Gallatin Valley to spend months watching Yellowstone wolves far from their native England, where she lectures on wolf behavior—fear that making the ’06 Female famous may also have killed her.
“I think it was absolutely targeted,” Peake says. “I think they targeted the collared wolves and I think they targeted the ’06 Female. Sometimes I feel badly because I think her fame maybe contributed to her death. But her story brought way more people into the story of wolves and why they need to be protected. Because we told her story, her life was not in vain.”
Lyman and Peake represent another part of the controversy, outside of hunting, research, and management—the cadre of wolf-watchers that has become as much a part of Yellowstone as the wolves themselves. Hundreds of thousands of people see wolves in Yellowstone, but these are not the casual passersby. Many wolf watchers schedule their lives so they can spend weeks and sometimes months every year observing the park’s wolves and learning the backstories of the packs and their members.
Some, like Lyman, have turned their lives over to watching wolves, and teaching visitors to Yellowstone about them. They are fierce advocates for wolf preservation. Many of the radio telemetry collars Yellowstone wolves wear are purchased with directed donations, badges of pride among wolf watchers who earn, in effect, their own wolf to follow. Some wolf watchers are given radios by Park Service Biological Technician Rick McIntyre so they can spread out, cover more ground, and coordinate with McIntyre when wolves are spotted.
Some of the fiercest wolf advocates believe that, beyond basic targeting, unscrupulous hunters with easily-acquired telemetry sets illegally used radio frequencies to pick up and track wolf collars’ signals. Wolf-collar frequencies are classified, but biologists say it’s possible to find them with some experimentation. In 2010, a post (long since taken down) on the website www.huntwolves.com offered this piece of advice:
My suggestions - Drive the roads from Lower Stanley to the Thompson Creek Road as late at night as you are willing to be up ... If you have the capability to scan collars - search from 218.000 - 219.000 Mhz step at .005 Mhz. Sit on each step 3 seconds. Receive on USB. If you get one with a collar. Record the frequency before you turn it in or dispose of it. It is on the inside facing the wolfs [sic] fur. If you want to turn the collar off, place a strong magnet on the outside face. A frequency counter or any receiver held close will confirm it is off.
The combined loss of eight collared wolves proved a significant setback to the Yellowstone Wolf Project’s ongoing research. “Collared individuals are key to our studies,” says Doug Smith, who has been part of the Yellowstone Wolf Project since re-introduction and has been its leader since 1996. “They’re how we connect ourselves to the wolves. Losing them hinders our ability to do science.”
Losing the data from the GPS collars, Smith says, is a big hit. “Those are very high value because they give us fine-grain knowledge of the wolves’ predatory patterns and their movement and behavior.”
WHEN THE U.S. FISH & Wildlife Service re-introduced gray wolves to Yellowstone in 1995 and 1996, park officials thought visitors would rarely see them. Hearing them howl, it was believed, would be the closest most visitors would come to experiencing a wild wolf.
They could not have been more wrong. Shortly after the re-introduction, in the elk-stuffed Lamar Valley, the Druid Peak pack set up shop, denning within a few hundred yards of the road and carrying on their daily lives—the raising and training of pups, breeding rituals, play behavior, hunting forays—within plain sight of the road. It’s estimated that over 300,000 people saw the Druid pack and its alpha males and females.
Their arch-rivals, the Slough Creek pack, denned just a few miles away, within reach of telescopic spotting scopes. The interaction between the two packs—pitched battles were witnessed and caught on film—and the Shakespearean maneuverings—daughters killing mothers, Lotharios stealing mates, a siege of a denned female by a powerful but unknown pack—captured the attention and imagination of people around the world.
What emerged were stories. Individual wolves, some wearing the Wolf Project’s radio collars, began to be recognized. Wolf-watching became a burgeoning niche industry, and spawned wolf supporters so enthusiastic they quit jobs in other states to move to Montana and Wyoming.
A 2005 study by a University of Montana professor stated wolf-watching brought $30 million annually to the towns around Yellowstone. The rise of blogs and social media allowed individual wolves to be followed daily, worldwide, long after park visitors returned home, building an even bigger constituency.
The ’06 Female emerged at a time when good wolf stories were badly needed. Outside the park, hunters and outfitters were decrying the wolves’ destruction of big game animals—notably elk. They weren’t wrong. Elk numbers in Yellowstone’s Northern Herd, the animals living along the park’s northern tier, where most of the wolves live, plummeted from somewhere near 20,000 pre-re-introduction to about 5,000 this year.
It’s somewhat difficult to compare numbers, says Smith, because in the 1980s, at the height of elk populations, biologists developed a “sightability index.” Elk are counted from the air on overflights. Knowing that they were not seeing every individual on the ground due to elk bedding in heavy tree cover or poor visibility conditions during some counts, biologists developed a model to estimate how many elk they weren’t seeing. They found that on average they were seeing 70 percent of the elk actually on the ground.
“But,” says Smith, “sightability ranged from 50 percent to 90 percent. In other words, you might be missing only 10 percent of the elk, or you might be missing 50 percent of them.”
Sightability is no longer part of the winter elk counts, which now entails only recording elk actually seen.
Before wolves, outfitters counted on elk migrating away from Yellowstone’s harsh winters to fill their clients’ tags. A “late season hunt”—technically a damage hunt allowed by Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) because they felt there were far too many elk in the Northern Herd—outside of Gardiner brought hunters and dollars in early winter, when tourists were sparse.
Only a few years after the wolves began feeding on elk, the great outpouring dried to a trickle. Towns around the park like Gardiner, West Yellowstone, and Cody “dried on the vine” says Rob Arnaud, who owns the Montana Hunting Company, an outfitting business.
Arnaud challenges the 2005 economic study—with credible research and revenue figures—by suggesting that the hunting economy pre-wolf poured far more money into the areas around the park than wolf-watching has.
“I like wolves,” Arnaud says. “I want them to be here. I just want them in balance. I’m not anti-wolf. I advocated for them in 1995. Now I’m advocating that we’ve got to get rid of some and tie management to predator-prey ratios and carrying capacities.”
Montana hunters were furious when FWP ended the late-season hunt and felt lied to, claiming they had been told before the re-introduction that wolves would not have such a severe impact on elk numbers.
Robert Fanning, who founded Friends of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd, a pro-hunting, adamantly anti-wolf organization, told me that Doug Smith made false or misleading comments “every time his lips are moving.” “Smith will share eternity with Dr. Joseph Mengele ... barking with the hounds of Hell,” Fanning wrote in an email.
Still, wildlife managers consider damage hunts expendable, a management tool to reduce a herd population to meet the range carrying capacity. Once herd population objectives are reached, there’s no need for a damage hunt.
“There still is a general season hunt around Gardiner,” Smith says. “Before re-introduction the best models predicted a decline in elk populations of 30 to 40 percent. That turned out to be wrong. It was an estimate, and the model was wrong. All models are wrong. Some are instructive. But that was before my time. I came with the wolves. There’s no doubt hunting has been impacted. Elk numbers are down. There’s less hunter opportunity. Part of that is wolves. Part of it is other predators. Yellowstone policy is to restore natural conditions. We’ve done that. Yellowstone today is as predator-rich as it has been for 100 years—wolves, cougars, grizzly bear, black bears, coyotes, and humans. When you have a suite of predators that are as complete as they have been in 100 years, you should expect impact on elk.”
While this is no doubt true, it’s a bitter pill for hunters used to showing up in Gardiner, waiting for some elk to step across the park boundary, and bringing home a truckload of meat for the winter.
As the ’06 Female rose to alpha status, inside the park the wolf stories were grim, too. In 2008, attacks by other wolves and sarcoptic mange—a parasite stockmen in the early 20th century used in a fervent attempt to eradicate wolves—decimated both the charismatic Druid and Slough Creek wolves. The remnant individuals scattered and, after 13 years, the world’s most famous packs ceased to exist. Tourists who drove to the Lamar Valley, the most reliable place to see a wild wolf in America, glimpsed only the rare wanderers-through.
Onto this empty stage stepped the ‘06 Female, and the two goofy mates she had chosen. Rare in the wolf world, the ’06 Female had settled on two brothers, sort of co-alpha males. In the winter of 2010 she bred with both males, and, because canids can, likely bore the offspring of both in a mixed litter. She chose the former Slough Creek pack’s den site, affording thankful wolf watchers the opportunity to observe as she raised her first pups.
What observers saw worried them at first. With the female stuck in the den feeding pups, the two fathers seemed more interested in play-wrestling, chewing on sticks, and chasing ravens than hunting the meat needed to feed their family. People worried the pups would not survive, an event which would likely disintegrate the nascent pack.
But the brothers gathered just enough meat so that the ’06 Female could eventually emerge from her den, leave the males to stand guard, and hunt to feed herself, her pups, and her mates. She became a lethal vector, a ruthlessly efficient hunter. According to park biologists, on average it takes four wolves to bring down an elk. The ’06 Female learned to do it by herself—running alongside until she sensed the elk was tiring, then sprinting in front, whirling, and seizing the animal by the throat, an incredibly dangerous undertaking wherein flailing hooves can crack femurs or scapulas and effectively down a wolf.
But the ’06 Female survived and ran her pack with cool efficiency. She eventually coerced her mates—755M emerged as the alpha male and 754 a very privileged bet—to help out more with the hunting, too. Though she led by example rather than aggression, as the pups grew to adults and a second litter filled in behind them, it was apparent they all did exactly what she wanted them to do. She led with a clear intelligence, successfully defending her territory from other packs in part by knowing when to fight and when to slink away if outnumbered.
“Her rise to the top came at a time when wolves weren’t doing well in Yellowstone,” says Nathan Varley, who has been involved with wolves since the re-introduction and now runs the eco-tourism company Yellowstone Wolf Tracker. “But she was able to feed her pack when other wolves around her were dying. She was able to survive where other wolves didn’t. And people were able to follow her story.”
She also fed businesses like Varley’s—and the Yellowstone Association, Yellowstone Safari, Outdoor Adventures, and Bearman’s guided tours, to name but a few of the eco-tourism guided trips that focus heavily on wolf watching. Although not the biggest of the bunch, Varley says he grossed about $500,000 last year and saw his business grow 10 to 20 percent annually even through the recession. But his business depends on collared wolves like the ’06 Female. “Collared wolves are so important because we can find them and we can tell their stories,” Varley says.
That, many hunters and outfitters say, is exactly the problem. “I understand that one of the ploys of the wolf advocates is to personify wolves,” says Montana Shooting Sports Association President Gary Marbut. “[Wolf advocates] do that by giving them names and making them look like cute and fuzzy creatures. They generate acceptance of wolves by people who don’t have to live with wolves. I see that as the chief motive for making them famous. People used to come to Yellowstone to see all the other wildlife, too, but a great deal of it is gone now because of wolves. What else does Yellowstone have to advertise except come see the wolves? And the geysers, of course.”
WITHIN HOURS OF THE news of the ’06 Female’s death, Internet message boards lit up with vitriol and public accusations flew, illustrating the feverish emotions people in the Northern Rockies—and particularly around Yellowstone—feel about wolves. Everybody knew a storm would break. As soon as he was informed that the ‘06 Female had been killed, Wyoming Game and Fish Director Scott Talbott personally delivered the news to the director of Yellowstone‘s Center for Resources, who called Smith—he was in Reno, delivering a presentation—to relay the news.
Wolf enthusiasts and biologists immediately clamored for some sort of “buffer zone” around Yellowstone, only to further enrage hunters and hard-core conservatives who accused them of trying to effectively extend the park’s boundaries.
“One issue is hunting districts are so large,” Smith says. “They don’t allow for fine-tuned management. What we’re trying to do is get reduced quotas right next to the park. ’06 was unique because she was shot 15 miles outside the park. And 754M was shot 16 miles outside the park. In the history of wolves using the Lamar Valley, all packs have left the park, but none of them have gone that far. We’re trying to reduce the probability of wolves being killed that live in Yellowstone. We’re never going to protect a wolf that goes 15 miles outside the park. We have no expectation of that. The future of wolves depends on public hunting. Public tolerance is enhanced by hunting. We’re looking for the middle of the road on this.”
Smith says the park is formally on record requesting subquotas in Montana, and met face to face with Wyoming officials to ask for reduced harvest in strategic locations, but spokespeople for both Montana FWP and Wyoming Game and Fish deny knowing anything about those requests.
Still, within days after the death of the ’06 Female, Montana’s FWP Commission, the agency’s rulemaking body, suspended hunting and the upcoming trapping season in some wolf management units adjacent to the park, effectively creating a buffer zone in that state.
Dan Vermillion was the sole commissioner to vote against the suspension. “I really didn’t think there should be a closure,” Vermillion told me. “The attention was much more focused on the harvest of collared wolves and much less focused on whether we’re overharvesting. I spoke with the regional wolf biologist and my feeling was that the wolf population along the Yellowstone border is just fine.”
But Vermillion was also anticipating politics in the Northern Rockies. “I was concerned that we’d be setting a precedent. You have to be careful in Montana, where you have legislators eager to strip biologists of authority and eager to manage wildlife from their political perspective.”
In mid-January, a judge ruled the Commission did not provide enough time for public comment and struck down the closures. The Commission decided not to take up the matter again. Hunting season in Montana closes at the end of February, but even then wolves trotting beyond park boundaries may be stepping into the steel teeth of leg-hold traps.
And Vermillion was prescient in his concerns about the legislature. A bill sailed through the Montana state House of Representatives on a 100-0 vote that forbids the creation of buffer zones for wolf hunting, mandating that the FWP Commission must set a quota for each Wolf Management Unit, and cannot close that unit until the quota is met.
“Until we get rid of the hatred toward wolves, it’s going to be a constant battle,” Vermillion says. “I look forward to the day people look at wolves not as the enemy, but see them as part of the landscape. How we get there, I don’t know. But I doubt elevating wolves almost to the point of pets is going to help. When a wild wolf leaves the park and comes into Montana, just like an elk or a deer, it’s a wild animal, and we have to manage it like one.”
Smith agrees with most of that, but makes one counterpoint. “Wolves that come out of that park are naïve to humans. They’re going to be more vulnerable to hunting. In the Lamar Valley, people watch them from a distance of a few hundred yards every day,” he says. “That distance is going to get them killed outside the park. I think that should be acknowledged in regulations. Nobody is arguing for no hunting, we’re arguing for reduced hunting.”
Wyoming and Idaho’s wildlife management agencies never considered any kind of buffer—in fact, both states are considering more aggressive quotas for next year. Mike Keckler, communications bureau chief at Idaho Fish and Game, says: “I am not aware of any discussion about creating a buffer around the park in Idaho. We do have harvest limits in some places, including the Island Park wolf zone, which is directly adjacent to Yellowstone.” But that quota is 30—a bit more than a third of the approximately 80 wolves still surviving in Yellowstone, the lowest number since 1999.
“As wildlife professionals we focus on wildlife populations as a whole and not individual animals,” says Wyoming Game and Fish Public Information Officer Eric Keszler. “I understand some people had emotional or special attachment to this one wolf, but creating management policies around individual animals doesn’t make sense from a wildlife management or ecosystem perspective.”
Like Montana, Idaho and Wyoming will keep their trapping seasons open for most of the winter.
ON A 17-DEGREE day two days before New Year’s, I stood in the Lamar Valley with a few other wolf watchers. The remnants of the Lamar Canyon pack were on a bison carcass—likely winterkill—just out of sight over a small rise. Only three wolves remained—alpha male 755M and two of his daughters. As we waited for a glimpse, an eerie howl rose from behind the hill, a quavering moan of sorts. It was nothing like the full-throated harmonics a complete pack can pour into the sky. Eight other subordinate Lamar Canyon wolves were somewhere else—nobody knew where. They had split off and disappeared for weeks.
Rhonda Gamble, a 59-year-old college professor from Desoto, Missouri, listened and started talking about the ’06 Female. “She was like a hero in the wolf world. They called her the ‘Rock Star,’” Gamble, who has come to the park 10 times since the re-introduction to see wolves, said. When she read about ‘06’s death on a wolf blog, she said, “it was a sinking feeling. It felt horrible, like, ‘I can’t believe this happened,’ though I knew it could once hunting seasons opened. People form this connection to something that will never be theirs but that’s part of your life.”
The wolves howled more, still low and moaning, and Gamble talked about all the people she’s met wolf watching. “You meet these people from all over the world,” she said. “Years on end, you’re all in this little place. It feels like a community.”
Then the wolves started moving. We could see them just over the low rise. They trotted west, 755M rangy and black, his daughters following. They headed toward where a park ranger had halted traffic, backing up several cars. 755M sprinted across the road then across the open snow toward the Lamar River. A daughter followed. But the third wolf lingered, pacing up and down the road, moving closer and closer to the ranger and the cars.
The ranger reached into his vehicle and pulled out a shotgun. He pointed it at the wolf and pulled the trigger. A cracker shell—designed to make noise and scare animals that became acclimated to people—exploded the morning silence. The wolf took off like a shot.
END NOTE: As of the end of January, the Lamar Canyon pack has reunited, all 11 remaining members running together. But they’ve left Yellowstone. Smith says they haven’t been back to the park for weeks and he thinks they may stay outside and become a Wyoming pack, leaving them wide open to foothold traps and lead-core bullets.
Also in early February, the Montana Legislature passed a bill giving the state's FWP commission permission to extend the wolf hunting season beyond its scheduled closing on February 28. The bill included a provision outlawing buffer zones. As press time, the FWP commission had not decided whether they would extend the season or not.