BILLINGS – Montana wildlife commissioners closed down the state’s gray wolf season in some areas north of Yellowstone National Park on Monday, in response to a spate of recent shootings of animals that had been collared for scientific research.
The move shuts down hunting and trapping in areas to the east and west of the town of Gardiner, just days before trapping season was set to begin.
But wildlife commissioners did not yield to pressure from wildlife advocates to create a permanent and more extensive buffer around the park.
Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission chairman Bob Ream said commissioners were addressing only “the particular and unique situation” of collared wolves being shot.
“It seems to be kind of a compromise,” Ream said. “Is it political? Yeah, wolves are political.”
Hunting and trapping supporters pushed to keep the areas open. Representatives of the Department of Fish, Parks and Wildlife also said no changes were needed because the overall wolf population was not at any risk.
The closures were approved on a 4-to-1 vote. Commissioner Dan Vermillion, of Livingston, cast the lone dissenting vote.
He said there was no evidence the harvest was damaging the species’ long-term viability.
Park officials say at least seven Yellowstone wolves – including five wearing tracking collars – were shot in recent weeks by hunters in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
Also shot were four collared wolves originally from the park but now living outside it. Three more shot in the vicinity of the park had unknown origins and were not wearing collars, park officials said.
Saturday marks the opening day of Montana’s first wolf trapping season since the animals lost federal protections last year.
Wildlife advocates had warned trapping could take even more of Yellowstone’s wolves than hunting. They’ve said only a permanent buffer zone would adequately protect a species that serves as a major draw for Yellowstone’s 3 million visitors annually.
Still, Marc Cooke with the group Wolves of the Rockies said Monday’s closure of some areas was a positive step.
“I admire the commissioners’ courage to step up to the plate and do the right thing,” he said.
A Yellowstone scientist said this week that the park’s overall population remained strong despite the recent shootings.
Wolf hunting has been under way in Montana since Sept. 1, with at least 89 killed to date. Wildlife officials said Monday that the statewide harvest was down 18 percent through Nov. 25 versus the same period last year.
State officials lifted quotas on wolves across most of Montana this spring in hopes of decreasing a predator population blamed for livestock attacks and driving down elk numbers in some areas.
Hunting and trapping are prohibited inside park boundaries, but wolves range freely across that line.
Shooting a collared wolf is legal if done within a state’s hunting regulations.
Radio collars on wolves are used to track the animals’ movement, often for research. They also are used outside the park to track down and kill predators following livestock attacks.
That function – using collars not just to study wolves but to manage their numbers – was a key factor behind Monday’s decision, said Shane Colton, a wildlife commissioner from Billings.
“That is an area where we feel we are at significant risk of losing more collared wolves,” Colton said of the areas closed to further wolf killing. “Whether hunters are targeting collared wolves or not, I don’t know. But if we’re going to continue to use collared wolves, steps have to be taken to stop that.”