Friday, December 14, 2012


Wolf 832 is on the right.  Her mate, left, was killed
by a hunter last month.  Photo by Doug McLaughlin
Some people called her "a rock star" and "the most famous wolf in the world."  They called her these things because she lived in Yellowstone National Park, and lots of tourists went there to see her.  Biologists liked to study her because she was the alpha female of her pack in Lamar Canyon, and she had a lot of things to teach people.  But sadly, last week Wolf 832 went outside of the park, and she got shot by a hunter.  This was totally legal for the hunter to do because wolves were taken off the endangered species list in Wyoming a few months ago.  But it's still a sad ending for such a famous wolf.

Back in the old days, when people first discovered Yellowstone, there were lots of gray wolves living there.  But then settlers started coming to the area, and they shot the wolves because they didn't want them to kill their cattle and sheep.  So by the 1930s, there were no more wolves.  But in 1995 and 1996, about 30 wolves were brought from Canada to the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone.  This was done to try to make the wildlife balance be more like it was in the 19th century.  The wolves had babies, and more wolves were brought in later, and now there are 10 packs of wolves in the park.

Of course, wolves like to eat elk, so this has made the elk population smaller, which means there is more food for the elk that haven't been eaten by wolves.  Also, trees such as cottonwoods, willows, and aspens are growing better because the elk don't eat all the new baby trees.  There are more beavers now, more songbirds, and more fish.  There are fewer coyotes, because the wolves see them as competitors for food and kill them.  But fewer coyotes means more foxes.  Also there are more carcasses for scavengers like ravens and bears.

So bringing back the wolves has made these things better.  But sometimes the wolves go out of the park and kill cattle and sheep, which are easy to kill because they are in fenced areas.  Ranchers depend on their livestock to make a living, so they don't want wolves eating all their animals.  But wolves are just looking for a tasty meal.  The government will pay a rancher for livestock that is killed by wolves, but the rancher has to find the kill right away, and there has to be enough of the animal left so that it is clear that a wolf killed it and not some other predator.  Which makes it hard sometimes for the ranchers to get reimbursed for their losses.

Because the wolf population of Yellowstone has been growing, wolves have been taken off the endangered species list, which made it legal to hunt them.  Wyoming was the last of the three states around the park where wolf hunting got okayed.  Ranchers feel better and more tolerant of wolves now that wolves can be hunted, but other people think the hunting is "too aggressive."  At least that's what Suzanne Stone, who is a wolf expert from Defenders of Wildlife says.  She also says that the wolf reintroduction program is being threatened.

Wolf 832 on the left.
Photo by Doug McLaughlin
Wolf 832 had not gone outside the park very often in the past.  She had lived there for 6 years, and scientists watched her behavior in her pack.  They were surprised to find out that alpha females are the true leaders of their packs, and not alpha males, like the scientists used to think.  Also 832 was an excellent hunter and could bring down a full-grown elk all by herself.  In February, she started wearing a $4,000 GPS tracking collar.  Before that, the biologists could never capture her to put a collar on her because she was so clever and kept getting away from them.

Since the wolf hunting season opened this fall in Wyoming, eight wolves wearing GPS collars have been killed.  Nobody knows exactly how many wolves without collars have been killed, but it might have been something like 50.  Last Friday, the Humane Society of the United States and the Fund for Animals filed a lawsuit to try to make the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put wolves back on the endangered species list in Wyoming.

Jonathan Lovvorn, of the HSUS, said in a statement that "The agency's decision to strip Wyoming wolves of federal protection is biologically reckless and contrary to the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.  Wyoming's regressive wolf management plan is reminiscent of a time when bounties paid by state and federal governments triggered mass killings that nearly exterminated wolves from the lower 48 states."

Wolves from the Lamar Canyon pack.
©Meg Sommers
I guess the nice judges in the courts will have to figure out who's right and who's wrong.  I kind of understand why ranchers would get mad when wolves eat their cows or sheep, but as a dog, I can't help thinking about how yummy those cows and sheep would taste.  Most of all, I am really sorry that Wolf 832 got killed because she was the kind of strong female that anybody could admire.

Oh, and if you want to learn more about the subject of wolves in Yellowstone, including all the issues that biologists and ranchers are dealing with, you should read this really interesting article in American Scientist magazine.

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