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Monday, October 26, 2009

Reckless Killing of Yellowstone’s Celebrated Wolves

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this year removed wolves from the protections of the Endangered Species Act, it paved the way for the same reckless sport hunting and persecution that put these animals on the endangered species list in the first place. And now we’ve learned that the first sport hunting season on wolves to occur in the lower 48 states since the 1980s has claimed the lives of some of Yellowstone National Park’s most celebrated wolves and has shattered years of critical research by wolf biologists.

Yellowstone_Wolf
The de-listing of wolves has claimed the lives of
Yellowstone’s most celebrated wolves.

Just weeks after Montana’s wolf hunt began, about half the members of Yellowstone’s famed Cottonwood wolf pack—including two radio-collared females known as Wolf 527 and her daughter, Wolf 716—were killed by hunters outside the park. Yellowstone’s wolves are famous to the world thanks to television documentaries on National Geographic, PBS, and the BBC. As one of the very few unexploited wolf populations in North America, their behavior, life history, travels, and genealogy have been carefully studied by scientists since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995.

But not anymore. Kim Murphy reported in the Los Angeles Times on the impact the wolf hunt has had on scientific research:

“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.

We knew the de-listing of wolves would have tragic consequences. But even Montana state officials were shocked by the ease with which wolves were gunned down by hunters, and they suspended the hunt along a section of Montana’s backcountry near the northern border of Yellowstone.

Wolf hunting advocates in Montana and Idaho argued that the hunts were needed to control predation on livestock, and they trotted out their usual bromides about scientific wildlife management. But what they’ve done instead is roll back years of science, and target wolves who weren’t any threat to livestock at all—wolves who were feeding on elk and were part of Yellowstone’s natural ecosystem. In fact, Montana’s wolf hunting season overlapped with its elk season, and it seems the Cottonwood wolves were attracted to the gut piles left by elk hunters just outside the park’s borders.

More than anything, it demonstrates that the decision to take wolves off the endangered species list was unscientific and premature. Federal courts have rejected the government’s de-listing proposals six times, but it wasn’t enough to save Wolf 527 or Wolf 716. While it’s open season in Montana and Idaho, a lawsuit by The Humane Society of the United States has provided a stay of execution for wolves in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Many environmentalists and animal advocates around the country voted for President Obama because they just couldn’t stomach Sarah Palin’s retrograde policies on wolves—now they’ve been saddened and let down by the Administration’s de-listing decision. It’s time to call off the wolf killing before it sets wolf conservation back any further and destroys more of their close-knit families.

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