It is exactly 25 years this month since 14 wolves from Canada were brought to Yellowstone National Park, an area that had not seen a single wolf in 70 years because of trophy hunting and trapping. Almost immediately, the animals began reshaping the landscape, regenerating the park’s ecological balance and biological diversity, and helping make it still more appealing to the millions of people who enjoy it today.
As their population thrived and tourists flocked to see them, the wolves provided economic benefits for local communities surrounding Yellowstone. Just 10 years after they were reintroduced, one study found, the presence of wolves added an estimated $35.5 million from visitor spending to local economies. This figure has no doubt increased since, as interest in wildlife watching continues to grow.
Over 41 million people have viewed the video, How Wolves Change Rivers, which showed how Yellowstone wolves keep sedentary deer and elk populations on the move so they don’t overgraze or browse, allowing willow and aspen groves to return and creating better habitat for songbirds, beavers and other species to recover. With the return of beavers and their lodge building activities come stream restoration and reduced bank erosion. Wolves also remove sick and weak animals, preventing slow starvation and limiting deer-auto collisions. And the carrion they generate benefit many species, from beetles to birds to wolverines.
Given all of these benefits, you’d think that the three states that are home to Yellowstone—Idaho, Montana and Wyoming—would value wolves more. Unfortunately, it is quite the opposite. While hunting is not allowed in Yellowstone, these three states allow trophy hunting and trapping elsewhere on their lands and in the areas bordering the park. As a result, even beloved and well-known Yellowstone wolves have found themselves in the crosshairs after stepping over the invisible park boundary. In the Fall of 2018, Spitfire, also known as 926F, who was descended from the first group of wolves reintroduced into Yellowstone, was killed just across the boundary by a trophy hunter in Montana.
In 2018, Wyoming set a record high quota of 58 wolves in areas bordering Yellowstone, leading to a drastic drop in the area’s wolf population. The state was forced to drastically reduce its quota the following year.
Such indiscriminate killing substantially diminishes the ability of millions of people to see these iconic carnivores in the wild. One study found that wolf sightings in Yellowstone decrease significantly after park wolves are killed in areas adjacent to the park; other studies have reported similar findings.
Montana has shown some signs of recognizing the problem, and is now poised to take a small step in the right direction. Recently, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission proposed reducing the quota of wolves in two management areas bordering Yellowstone.
We support any reduction in the number of wolves killed, but just limiting the killing is not enough. What we truly need is a buffer zone around the park to protect wolves like Spitfire who are incapable of seeing an invisible line and end up crossing it.
We have a long history of advocating for wolves in Yellowstone and in other locations. Twenty-five years ago, when those first 14 wolves arrived at Yellowstone from Canada, our own Dave Pauli, now senior adviser for response and policy at the HSUS, was on the ground, rallying public support for the wolves and helping ensure the survival of the newly introduced animals. Recently, we celebrated news of a recent sighting of a pack of wolves in Colorado, marking the first time in recent history that multiple wolves have been travelling together in the state – a positive outcome, no doubt, of the return of the Yellowstone wolves.
This is an exciting but perilous time for wolves, as attacks from Congress and the Trump administration against these animals mount. We will provide comments in favor of reducing the trophy hunting quota in the Montana wolf management units bordering Yellowstone while also stating the need for a true buffer zone around the park. The Montana Fish and Game Commission is accepting public input on this proposal until January 27, and we strongly encourage Montana residents to call for protecting wolves in the entire area bordering Yellowstone as well. When wolves are in peril, we’re going to stand up for them.