By Trent Knoss
With the country’s national parks open once again, visitors are flocking to Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley in the hope of seeing one of the park’s most elusive and breathtaking predators: the grey wolf. In January 1995, 14 wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone after a 69-year absence. Today, close to 1,600 live throughout greater Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming—a remarkable recovery for a species once hunted to the brink of extinction in the continental United States.
Yellowstone Wolf Population is Declining
Spotting a wolf inside the park might take a little more luck than usual these days. In March of 2013, officials estimated that just 71 adult wolves reside within Yellowstone’s boundaries, a 14-year low and less than half of 2007’s total. Mange, a parasitic skin disease, has contributed to the decline, as has the dwindling elk population.
Hunting has thinned out the population most dramatically in recent years. Hunting within the park itself is prohibited, but wolves—who routinely traverse up to 30 miles of forested terrain per day—often stray outside those invisible borders. When they do, they become fair game for hunters whether or not they are wearing a radio-tracking collar. Such hunting has drawn heavy criticism, especially after the high-profile killing of famed female wolf “832F” on December 12, 2012. 832F’s death particularly dismayed biologists, who rely on telemetry data from the radio collars to study a wolf pack’s behavior and reproductive patterns. (Yellowstone currently boasts 11 distinct packs, 8 in the north and 3 in the south.)
Park officials have publicly stated their desire to balance population concerns with those of hunting enthusiasts in greater Montana. “The park is not anti-hunting,” Yellowstone chief scientist Dave Hallac told The Missoulian in July. “What we’re trying to do is balance the conservation of wolves in Yellowstone, which are not an exploited population right now, with some level of reasonable harvest.” There is an economic element to the debate, too: “Wolf watching” tourism brings in close to $35 million for the park each year.
As Yellowstone’s wolf restoration effort nears its 20th anniversary in 2015, the grey wolf remains as breathtaking a sight as ever for thousands of park visitors each year. But will the wolves become an even rarer sight in years to come?