Dear EarthTalk: Does the recent lifting of wolf hunting quotas in Montana, north of Yellowstone National Park, pose a threat to the reintroduced wolf population there?

When the last gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park was shot in 1926, park managers and ranchers from neighboring lands rejoiced together that the dark range predator no longer tormented them. Wolves have been blamed for poaching livestock and wreaking havoc on populations of traditional ‘game’ animals like elk and deer. But a funny thing happened after the wolves left. Moose numbers began to skyrocket. Essentially, without the wolf around to control its population, the elk ate everything it saw, including new saplings of willow, aspen, and other trees essential to maintaining the balance of Yellowstone’s ecosystems.

In the 1990s, biologists successfully convinced the federal government that these predators are essential to ecosystem health, and gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone. The results have been nothing short of amazing in terms of restoring the ecosystem and bringing back various species of wildlife that were common there a century ago.

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But ranchers on the park’s periphery (Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana all border Yellowstone) have maintained their antipathy toward wolves given the primitive canids’ predilection for killing domestic cows outside the park for a meal. quick and easy. Such situations are rare given that there is plenty of wild game the wolves can hunt at their base within the borders of Yellowstone. Nevertheless, anti-ecologists and other conservative pundits have joined forces with ranchers to politicize the issue of wolf reintroduction. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of political pressure from those who make their living outside the national park to lift all hunting restrictions on wolves that stray onto state land.

It’s no surprise, then, that Montana is lifting quotas limiting hunters and trappers to just two gray wolf kills each in areas bordering Yellowstone. A similar move in Idaho months earlier means Yellowstone Wolves are now getting it from every angle.

And, indeed, with more than 15 wolves killed in Montana’s borderlands alone so far this winter, it remains to be seen whether easing state wolf hunting restrictions is such a good idea after all. . In 1995-1997, 42 gray wolves were moved from western Canada and northwest Montana to Yellowstone; Today, 123 gray wolves broke into nine different packs roaming free in the national park. While the population has grown well and remained stable over the past decade, increased hunting could send these packs into dangerous territory when it comes to their ability to reproduce.

Unfortunately, for wolves (and for us), a false dichotomy persists that we cannot successfully herd and preserve the ecological integrity of the world’s first national park at the same time. But the fact remains that we can, especially with programs to reimburse ranchers for their rare losses to wolf predation. In the meantime, states should increasingly facilitate the shooting or trapping of wolves that unwittingly cross state lands, and politics will continue to be behind all of this.

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