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How warm is it? First griz emerges from den to see

WILDLIFE WATCHING —  The first confirmed report of grizzly bear activity this year in Yellowstone occurred on Monday, Feb. 9, 2015, as a grizzly bear that had emerged from its den was observed scavenging on a bison carcass in the central portion of the park, the Billings Gazette reports.

Unseasonably warm temperatures in the region have created a new normal:  Snowmobilers are being warned to carry bear spray.

With bears emerging from hibernation, hikers, skiers and snowshoers also are advised to stay in groups of three or more, make noise on the trail and carry bear spray.

Bears begin looking for food soon after they emerge from their dens. They are attracted to elk and bison that have died during the winter. Carcasses are an important enough food source that bears will sometimes react aggressively when surprised while feeding on them.

The bear that left its den this week is at the very early range of bear emergence, according to published research on bear denning in Yellowstone:

Earliest den emergence for males occurred during the first week of February, with 90% of males out of dens by the fourth week of April. Earliest den emergence for females occurred during the third week of March; by the first week of May, 90% of females had emerged.

Male bears emerged from dens earlier than females. Denning period differed among classes and averaged 171 days for females that emerged from dens with cubs, 151 days for other females, and 131 days for males. Known pregnant females tended to den at higher elevations and, following emergence, remained at higher elevation until late May.

Updated: Yellowstone elk increase as wolf numbers decline

Updated Feb. 5, noon, with info about corresponding decline of Yellowstone wolves.

WILDLIFE — Wildlife officials have tallied a 24 percent increase in the size of an elk herd that migrates between Yellowstone National Park and Montana.

But they say it’s too soon to know if the change marks a turnaround for a population long in decline.

The 2015 winter survey of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd counted 4,844 elk. That’s almost 1,000 animals more than the last count in 2013 and the highest number since 2010.

Park biologist Doug Smith says a higher survival rate for newborn calves last year likely helped boost the population.

The well-known herd peaked at almost 20,000 animals in 1994, just before carnivorous gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995.

Also taking a toll on the herd have been hunters, other predators and harsh winters.

Research has shown that the elk were overpopulated in the mid-90s and that the park's ecosystems, including aspens, have benefited to a more natural balance since wolves were reintroduced.

However, sportsmen's groups say a 75 percent decline in the area's elk herd is overkill.

Variable factors?

Wolf factor

The park's wolf population has dropped substantially since 2007. Park-wide, the number of wolves in Yellowstone declined from 171 in December 2007 to 82 in December 2012. Most of the decrease has been in packs on the northern range, where it has been attributed primarily to the decline in the elk population there. Disease, primarily distemper and possibly mange, have also been factors in the population decline. Wolves also have been killing each other in territorial contests.

Here's a Feb. 5 story with more details from the Associated Press:

By MATTHEW BROWN

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Wildlife officials tallied a 24 percent population increase this winter for a well-known elk herd that migrates between Yellowstone National Park and Montana, but said it was too soon to know if the change marks a turnaround for a herd long in decline.

The 2015 winter survey of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd counted 4,844 elk. That’s almost 1,000 more animals than the last reliable count, in 2013, and the highest number since 2010.

A higher survival rate for newborn calves last year likely helped boost the population, according to biologists Doug Smith with Yellowstone and Karen Loveless with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The herd, which is widely known among hunters and wildlife watchers, peaked at almost 20,000 animals in the early 1990s. That was soon before carnivorous gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, helping drive down elk numbers that also took a toll from heavy hunting, other predators and harsh winters.

State wildlife officials responded by first reducing and eventually eliminating in 2011 a late-season elk hunt near Gardiner that at one point issued permits for more than 1,000 elk annually.

Loveless said this winter’s jump in the herd’s numbers is not enough to immediately justify any additional hunting.

“I’d want to see at least a few years of population stability before we were to increase the (elk) harvest,” she said.

The 2015 winter survey counted more than 1,130 elk inside the park and more than 3,700 in adjacent areas of Montana.

Wolf numbers on the herd’s range have dropped by roughly half in recent years, from 94 to 42 of the predators. Park biologists said the decline suggests wolves could be beginning to respond to fewer elk.

A study is planned next winter to gauge the accuracy of the annual elk survey, Smith said. Participants will include researchers from the park, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the U.S. Geological Survey.

“Certainly the news is good. The numbers are up. Is it a true indication of a trend? I can’t say,” Smith said. “We want to know what’s going on with these elk. They are iconic in this region.”

Last year’s survey was not completed because of poor weather conditions.

Bighorn sheep dying of pneumonia near Yellowstone

WILDLIFE WATCHING —  Disease that's ravaged wild sheep in parts of Washington, Idaho and Montana in recent years has shown up in one of America's most prized wildlife preserves.

A pneumonia outbreak has killed at least ten bighorn sheep near Yellowstone National Park.

Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks officials said Monday that the outbreak was in the Upper Yellowstone sheep herd near Gardiner, where bighorns are often highly visible to the public.

The dead animals include a mix of rams, lambs, and one adult ewe.

Sheep in the Gardiner area have experienced smaller pneumonia outbreaks in the past few years.

There are domestic sheep in the same area.

State officials say research has shown that bacteria can be transmitted from healthy domestic sheep to bighorn sheep, causing pneumonia in the wild sheep.

Related reading:

 

Idaho farm-raised elk get loose near Yellowstone

WILDLIFE —  State officials say 28 domestic elk escaped from a hunting ranch in eastern Idaho near Yellowstone National Park but only one is unaccounted for and it’s wounded, according to the Associated Press.

Veterinarian Scott Leibsle of the Idaho Department of Agriculture says Broadmouth Canyon Ranch near Firth reported within 24 hours the Sunday escape.

States have strict rules regarding fencing and treatment of domestic elk to prevent the health and genetic influences they might have on wild elk.

Ranch owner and former NFL player Rulon Jones told The Associated Press on Wednesday that 12 elk escaped and five had to be shot. He put the loss of the five elk at $10,000.

The reason for the discrepancy in the number of escaped elk isn’t clear.

Leibsle said Wednesday the agency is waiting for a final report. He says the ranch has met all state requirements for disease testing of captive elk.

Man charged $3K for crashing drone in Yellowstone

PUBLIC LANDS — Here's the outcome of one of the cases in Yellowstone that helped the National Park Service solidify its policy to ban the use of drones in our national parks.

Man fined for crashing drone in Yellowstone Park's Grand Prismatic Spring
A visitor from the Netherlands who crashed a drone into the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park was fine $1,000 and must pay more than $2,000 in restitution costs for the illegal use of the drone, which is still in the spring and may not be recoverable.

Yellowstone opens lottery for snowmobilers

WINTERSPORTS — Here's Yellowstone's latest plan to harness use of snowmobiles in the one of the nation's greatest wildlife parks.

Yellowstone NP to launch lottery for private snowmobile trips today
Under Yellowstone National Park's winter-use plan, snowmobiling without a guide will be allowed once again, with permits for parties of up to five snow machines through each of the park's four entrances each day to be issued via a lottery system that begins TODAY, Sept. 10, 2014.
—Jackson Hole Daily

Another drone flyer ticketed in Yellowstone

PUBLIC LANDS — If you go to a national park, leave the drone in the trunk and enjoy the scenery and wildlife the old-fashioned way.

German man formally charged for drone crash in Yellowstone Lake
Following an investigation of a drone crash near the marina of Yellowstone Lake, a German man faces four federal charges, including violating Yellowstone National Park's ban on the use of unmanned aircraft in the park. He's the third drone operator to get a ticket from rangers.
-Jackson Hole News & Guide;

Drone wreckage beginning to litter Yellowstone

PUBLIC LANDS — There's a clear case to be made in terms of safety, privacy and stewardship for requiring people to get special permits in order to use drones on public lands.

And for now, the ban on using drones in national parks gets a big thumbs up.

Another drone meets a watery end in Yellowstone National Park
Since the National Park Service recently banned the use of drones on the 84 million acres under its jurisdiction, violations have been sporadic in Yellowstone National Park. In two cases, the violators' drones have met a watery end: The first plopped into Yellowstone Lake.

The latest one crashed in Grand Prismatic, the park's well-known hot spring, where the 160-degree water makes retrieval of the unmanned aircraft unlikely.

— Jackson Hole News & Guide

Beartooth Highway recognized for historical significance

OUTDOOR TRAVEL — I have a special fondness for the Beartooth Highway between Red Lodge and Cooke City, Mont.  My father was a laborer who helped build the engineering marvel during the major construction period, 1932-1936.  But more on that in a bit….

Here's the latest news about the road that Charles Kuralt called "the most beautiful drive in America:"  The Beartooth Highway in Montana and Wyoming has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  

A 60-mile stretch of U.S. 212 has been officially named the Red Lodge - Cooke City Approach Road Historic District.  

It’s part of a 68-mile highway that runs from Red Lodge, Montana, into northern Wyoming, on to Cooke City in Montana and then back down to the Wyoming border where it meets the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park.  

The highway is nationally significant for substantially increasing recreational development and tourism in Yellowstone and the region. The road is also recognized for its distinctive engineering and the methods of high-altitude road construction used in its construction.  

It is the highest elevation highway in Wyoming at 10,947 feet and in Montana at 10,350 feet.   

Personally, it's an access route to some of my favorite hiking and fishing destination in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area.

I have a map of the area from the 1930s on which my dad marked Beartooth area hike-in lakes and the type of fishing he experience at each one as he explored with a fishing rod in hand on days off.  Dad, who would be 94 if he were still alive, told me he would catch fish in the early season and bury them in the snow until he was finished for the day. Then he'd pack them down to the construction camp, where he'd quickly be everyone's friend.

Only once did he have to share the fish with a bear who'd found his cache, he said.

Lightning: flashy way to die outdoors

OUTDOOR SAFETY — Name the safest place to seek refuge if you are outdoors and a lighting storm moves in?

  • Answer: An automobile — totally safe, unless a tree blows down on top of you.

This is Lightning Awareness Week, so be aware.  Sure, you can't bail out of the wilderness every time a thunder storm rolls in, but you can minimize risk by checking weather reports and getting very early starts on ventures into the high ridges so you can return to safer areas or your car by the time thunder activity begins, usually in the afternoon.

Check the attached document for some solid background on lighting safety.


Documents:

Seattle treasure hunters fouling Yellowstone Park

PUBLIC LANDS — For God's sake, get a clue.

Yellowstone Park rangers rescue, cite treasure hunters twice
On April 27 and again on May 9, rangers from Yellowstone National Park had to rescue treasure hunters from Washington state who were ill-equipped for their treks into the park's back country seeking the $1-million "Forrest Fenn Treasure," which a poem in the Santa Fe, N.M. art dealer's 2010 memoir allegedly contains nine clues to the hidden treasure.
—Jackson Hole News & Guide

Yellowstone Park report indicates changes affecting critters

Biennial report tracks changes in Yellowstone National Park
The Yellowstone Center for Resources released its biennial report on conditions within Yellowstone National Park and the 2013 "Vital Signs" said that drier conditions were reported across the park in the past two years as precipitation has declined, visitor numbers have increased, while populations of elk, trumpeter swans and three species of fish have declined.
—Bozeman Daily Chronicle;

Bozeman-to-Yellowstone shuttle service planned

NATIONAL PARKS — Making a winter visit to Yellowstone National Park will be easier this season with a new shuttle service between Bozeman and Mammoth Hot Springs.

Yellowstone National Park Lodges, operated by Xanterra, says the shuttle will start on Dec. 18 with the winter season opening of the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. The opening of the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel is set for Dec. 20. The lodges provide the only wintertime accommodations within the park through March 2.

Except for the road from Gardiner, Mont. to Cooke City, Mont. via Mammoth Hot Springs, transportation within the park is limited to snowmobiles and enclosed heated snowcoaches during the winter. Snowcoach transportation is available daily to a variety of park locations. Xanterra also offers a wide range of half- and full-day snowcoach, ski and snowshoe tours and ski and snowshoe rentals as well as expert instruction and other services. 

The new shuttle will depart Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel daily at 9:15 a.m. and arrive at the airport at 11:15 a.m. For guests remaining in Bozeman, the shuttle will drop them off at a local hotel. Visitors who spent the previous night in Bozeman will board the shuttle at the Holiday Inn at 1 p.m. The shuttle will return to the airport to pick up arrivals for a 1:45 p.m. departure back to the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel in Yellowstone. 

Rates are $51.50, plus taxes and fees, each way for riders age three years and up.

Call toll-free: (866) 439-7375. 

Deaths of 5 wolves worry Yellowstone wolf-watchers

HUNTING —  Wolf-watchers say they’re concerned that hunters participating in Wyoming’s second annual wolf hunt may have killed five members of the Lamar Canyon Pack, a well-known wolf pack whose territory includes part of Yellowstone National Park.

Officials with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department say it’s impossible to determine if the two male and three female wolves were members of the Lamar Canyon Pack. The five were killed in a hunt area northeast of Cody over three days in mid-October.

Recent counts put the number of wolves in the pack at 11, meaning almost half the pack might have been killed.

State law prohibits Game and Fish employees from disclosing details about wolves killed in Wyoming’s annual wolf hunt. That includes the specific locations where wolves are killed and the wolves’ age, coloration and breeding status, the Jackson Hole News & Guide reports.

Regardless, Game and Fish officials can’t determine the identity of the wolves killed for certain because the wolves weren’t among those in the region that are wearing radio collars, department spokesman Alan Dubberley said.

“There’s no way to know. We just don’t have that information,” Dubberley said.

Wolves of the Rockies President Marc Cooke said he sought the identity of the wolves killed from Game and Fish officials but didn’t get any answers.

“They might as well face the reality that there’s a good possibility that wolves killed were from Yellowstone,” Cooke said.

The hunt area had a limit of four wolves. The five killed exceeded that by one. Last year, hunters were allowed to kill up to eight wolves in the hunt area.

This year’s statewide wolf hunt limit is 26, down from 52 last year. The wolf hunting season began Oct. 1 and ends Dec. 31 with the exception of a hunt area south of Jackson where hunting began Oct. 15 and ends Dec. 31.

Yellowstone’s mature workers and volunteers

We spent two days in Yellowstone Park recently, and many of the park rangers and volunteers looked boomer age and older. Lots of silver hair.

I watched the three pictured here work the desk in the busy visitor center at Old Faithful. They graciously answered the same questions over and over again, communicated patiently with tourists who spoke little English and the woman in the center of this picture walked out to Old Faithful during a huge downpour and gave a talk without flinching at the rain.

And they posed for this photo without making a big fuss. My husband took the shot, and then they were back to work answering the same questions over and over again as if it was the first time they heard it, such as "When will Old Faithful erupt next?" Signs were everywhere announcing the next window of time when it may erupt, but they cheerfully answered the question anyway.

(Photo by Tony Wadden)

Yellowstone reports first gun-related death in 35 years

PARKS — A 3-year-old girl camping with her family in Yellowstone National Park died after shooting herself with a handgun on Saturday, the first gun-related death in park since 1978, according to the Associated Press.

The shooting, reported by the Casper Star Tribune, occurred four years after Congress approved the possession of handguns in National Parks and federal wildlife areas. The law, which was attached as an amendment to a credit card bill, allows concealed and loaded weapons in parks provided they are allowed by state law.

Related stories:

Yellowstone’s tallest geyser blows for first time in 8 years

PARKS — It's not the most faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park, but on the rare occasion that it blows, it's the world's tallest.

Steamboat Geyser erupted on Wednesday for the first time in more than eight years.

The nine-minute blast sent steaming hot water an estimated 200 to 300 feet in the air, park geologist Hank Heasler said.

Unlike the park’s popular and famous Old Faithful geyser, which spews water like clockwork every hour-and-a-half, no one knows when Steamboat will erupt next.

In the past, it’s gone as long as 50 years without a major event. In 1964, it erupted a record 29 times. The last blast came in 2005.

Steamboat is one of more than 500 geysers at Yellowstone, which boasts the largest collection of hydrothermal features in the world.

The geyser is in a popular viewing area known as the Norris Geyser Basin. According to the Associated Press, its eruption at about 7:30 p.m. Wednesday drew dozens of excited onlookers who were at the right place at the right time, said Robb Long, a freelance photographer from Sioux Falls, S.D., who was visiting the park with his fiance and her family.

“It was an amazing experience. This thing sounded like a locomotive,” Long told AP. “Everybody was frantic, taking pictures. People were running down there trying to get to it before it went away, and park rangers were running around trying to gather up people so they didn’t get too close.”

Yellowstone’s geysers are fueled by cold water that feeds into a natural underground plumbing network, where heat from the park’s volcano forces chemical-laden water to the surface and causes the periodic eruptions, Heasler said.

Early accounts of Steamboats eruptions came from first-hand observations, with the first recorded in 1878. 

Hikers in 3 national parks felled by lightning

HIKING — Thunder storms throughout the West this week took a heavy toll, setting fires and raising havoc in several ways.  

The strangest detail:   Hikers in three national parks were injured or killed within a 30-hour period.

See the stories about this week's lightning strike victims in:

Read this story about the serious threat lightning poses and precautions hikers and campers can take.

Another study reduces blame on wolves for elk declines

PREDATORS — Wolve have had an impact on elk in Wyoming, forcing recuced elk hunting opportunity.  

But with elk herds stabilized, wolves aren't having as much impact on elk as other predators and habitat issues.

That's they gyst what researchers are finding in the latest study on elk herds in Wyoming.

New Yellowstone fishing rules target non-native species

FISHING — Yellowstone National Park has enacted a few new fishing regulations aimed at protecting native fish species.

In some cases, anglers MUST KEEP certain species they catch.

The limit on non-native fish caught in the park's Native Trout Conservation Area has been eliminated. This includes all park waters except the Madison and Firehole rivers, the Gibbon River below Gibbon Falls, and Lewis and Shoshone lakes.

Rainbow or brook trout caught in the Lamar River drainage must be harvested in order to protect native cutthroat trout in the headwater reaches of the drainage. This includes Slough and Soda Butte Creeks.

All lake trout caught in Yellowstone Lake must be killed to help cutthroat trout restoration efforts.

All native fish including cutthroat trout, mountain whitefish and Arctic grayling must be released unharmed.

Surprising predator gets some blame for killing Yellowstone Park elk calves

WILDLIFE — Which predator gets the blame for poor survival of elk calves in Yellowstone National Park?

A. Gray wolf.

B. Grizzly bear.

C. Lake trout.

Answer:  All of the above.

Check out the Billings Gazette story on the latest suprising research — which shouldn't be all that surprising to wildlife enthusiasts who understand the complex ways nature is connected.

Wolves call end to bull elk’s long tenure in Yellowstone Park

WILDLIFE — An internationally famous Yellowstone National Park bull elk has died, likely killed by the Canyon wolf pack, which was seen Saturday feeding on his carcass, according to today's report by Brett French of the Billings Gazette.

Elk No. 10, the last to wear a yellow ear tag with the number 10 on it, was found dead about a half mile east of the Wraith Falls trailhead in the park on Saturday, according to Al Nash, the park's chief of public affairs.  The elk was 16-18 years old.

Elk No. 10 became internationally famous after the British Broadcasting Corp. made a film on elk that featured the Mammoth animals as well as those in Estes Park, Colo. Clips from the films “Street Fighters” and “Showdown in Elk Town” can still be found on YouTube.

The large bull elk attracted attention in Gardiner in 2001 when he got his antlers tangled in a badminton net and poles at the Mammoth school. The only way to remove the net was to tranquilize the elk and saw off its antlers. That's when the elk was given its yellow ear tag to ensure that any hunters who saw it that fall would know the elk's meat was unsafe to eat because of the tranquilizer.

“I remember in 2006 when Elk 10 arrived on the Mammoth scene on Sept. 10,” wrote Jim Halfpenny, a Gardner-based naturalist who gives tours in the park, in an email. “He was now big and took the harem over from another bull. In the coming years, he and Elk 6 did battle on more than one occasion. In more recent years he did not come into Mammoth, but maintained a harem of his own between the YCC camp and Mammoth Terraces. Being slightly old, wiser, and lacking the body weight of his youth, it was now time to retreat to a more private place with a smaller harem. He let the younger bulls compete for the prime grazing habitat of Mammoth and the cows that are attracted there.”

Photographer documents grizzly out of its den

WILDLIFE — It's time to start packing your bear spray again.

Grizzly bears are emerging from their winter dens pretty much right on schedule.

This photograph comes this week from Yellowstone Tour Guides, which has quite an assortment of photos showing the park's wildlife winning and losing the struggle to survive winter.

Yellowstone elk herd decline continues

WILDLIFE — A major elk herd that migrates between Yellowstone National Park and Montana is still in a decline that’s reduced the population by 80 percent in 20 years.

Scientists from the park and the Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks said the Northern Yellowstone elk herd is down 6 percent this winter, to 3,915 animals.

The herd peaked at about 20,000 animals in 1992. That was just a few years before gray wolves were reintroduced to the Yellowstone area from Canada after being absent from the region for decades.

Also taking a toll on the herd have been hunters, other predators including mountain lions and bears, and harsh winters.

Yellowstone’s roads closing so plowing can begin

NATIONAL PARKS — The transition has begun at Yellowstone National Park. Pavement will soon be exposed.

Seasonal road closures in Yellowstone NP begin Friday
Over-snow travel season is drawing to a close in Yellowstone National Park, and on Friday, the East Entrance will close at 9 p.m., and on Sunday, over-snow travel into the park from Mammoth Hot Springs will close. Other closures will take effect next week. —Billings Gazette

Montana fast-tracks bill to expand wolf hunting

PREDATORS — A proposal to narrow wildlife management options and expand the state's wolf hunt is being fast-tracked through the Montana Legislature for the governor's, according to the Associated Press.

The Montana Senate on Thursday suspended its rules so it could take initial and final votes on the same day on the measure that already had overwhelmingly cleared the House.

Here's more info from the AP:

House Bill 73 lets the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks increase the number of wolves one hunter can take, allows for electronic calls and removes a requirement to wear hunter orange outside general deer and elk season.

  • The measure also prohibits the state wildlife agency from banning wolf hunts in areas around national parks. Its swift passage would allow the changes to take effect during the hunting season that's currently under way.

The department last month abandoned efforts to shut down gray wolf hunting and trapping in an area north of Yellowstone National Park after wolves popular with the park visitors and five radio-collared wolves important to wolf research were killed.

Lawmakers wanted to make sure such a regional closure doesn't come up again.

Gov. Steve Bullock has indicated support for the legislation, noting it had been backed by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

"The department did support it, and at the end of the day we need to base these decisions on science, not on politics, and allowing more than one, three wolves to be taken, it fits in with the science," he said.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks said it already has prepared rule changes that will allow the legislation to immediately impact what remains of the wolf hunting season ending Feb. 28.

Hunters and trappers so far this season have killed fewer than 200 wolves. Wildlife officials are hoping to reduce the animals' population from an estimated 650 wolves to around 450. The goal is to reduce wolf attacks on livestock and help some elk herds that have been in decline due to wolf attacks.

Wildlife advocates have argued the state is being too aggressive against a species only recently restored to the Northern Rockies after it was widely exterminated last century. But no one spoke against the expanded wolf hunt on the Senate floor.

"These creatures are hard to hunt, and we need to allow our wolf hunters the best chance of getting into them while the season is still ongoing," said Sen.Larry Jent, D-Bozeman.

Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, said the "big kumbaya" around the bill concerned him because he argued it doesn't go far enough to limit wolf numbers. He said the FWP is going to have to start allowing snare trapping of the wolves, a controversial practice the wildlife commission banned with its trapping regulations.

"While this bill will do some things, it is not the big answer," Thomas said. "If you really want to get after this, you have to authorize snaring."

Court upholds Montana allowing bison to roam free outside Yellowstone

WILDLIFE — Montana's decision to let migrating bison roam freely across 70,000 acres outside Yellowstone National Park was upheld by a court ruling Monday that dismissed a pair of lawsuits filed by ranchers to challenge the policy.

The judge sided with state officials and conservation groups that have sought to ease restrictions on bison movements.

Thousands of bison flood out of Yellowstone during severe winters. In the past, the animals were subject to mass slaughters over fears they could spread the disease brucellosis to livestock.

The slaughters were blocked by former Gov. Brian Schweitzer. But when hundreds of bison were allowed to return to the Gardiner Basin, local officials said they posed a threat to safety and destroyed private property.

In his ruling, Phillips acknowledged the plaintiffs' struggles with bison, but said those were an unavoidable consequence of living in Montana with its abundant wildlife.

Montana panel votes to protect wolves in areas just outside Yellowstone

PREDATORS — After seven of Yellowstone National Park's roughly 88 wolves had been legally shot in recent weeks while traveling outside the park — including five wolves that had been radio-collared for research — Montana wildlife commissioners voted today to close some areas outside the park to wolf hunting and trapping.

The closures were approved on a 4-to-1 vote by Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission, the Associated Press reports.

The most recent to be shot, the collared alpha female from the park's well-known Lamar Canyon pack, was killed last week in Wyoming. The pack is often viewed by park visitors.

Also shot in recent weeks 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, park officials said.

Saturday is the opening day of Montana’s first wolf trapping season since the animals lost federal protections last year.

With at least five collared wolves from the park shot this year, commissioners say they want to guard against too many being killed.  However, wildlife officials say the statewide wolf harvest is down 18 percent this year.

Before the meeting, Montana wildlife commissioner Shane Colton told the Ravalli Republic, "We don't want to close any area off if we don't have to. But if we keep losing collared wolves … management becomes difficult. We want to do this first trapping season right."