DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:
This winter saw the most wolves from Yellowstone National Park killed in about a century. That's because states neighboring the park changed hunting rules to reduce the animal's numbers. Montana Public Radio's Nick Mott joined wolf biologists inside the park to find out what it means to lose the animals.
NICK MOTT, BYLINE: Yellowstone National Park senior wolf biologist Doug Smith is driving over a washboarded road to an area near the park's northern border.
DOUG SMITH: This was the winter of my discontent.
MOTT: There's no wolf hunting in the park itself. But when wolves set paw over the Yellowstone National Park boundary into Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, they're fair game. That invisible line is just in front of us. And this season, hunters killed 25 wolves, about 20% of the park's population.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO STATIC)
MOTT: Smith's hoping to track a wolf that wears a radio collar. Hopping out of his car, he waves around an antenna, eyes on the distant hills. He thinks he hears a signal, but...
SMITH: I've radio tracked so much of my life. You get this thing called ghost beeps.
SMITH: You think you hear a beep, and you don't.
MOTT: After wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in the mid-1990s, their population in and around the park rebounded. Federal protections were then dropped about a decade ago, and it became legal to hunt limited numbers of them. Now, saying wolves have come back too strong, Montana legalized practices, including night hunting. In Idaho, it's now legal to shoot them from ATVs and snowmobiles.
Suddenly, Smith gets a signal.
SMITH: This wolf's around. How do you like that?
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO STATIC AND BEEPING)
MOTT: A lone wolf who's out of sight. But from the beeps he's getting, Smith says it's a mile, maybe a mile and a half in the distance.
As the number of wolf deaths climbed in December, Yellowstone's superintendent wrote Montana Governor Greg Gianforte, asking him to suspend the hunting season. It fell on deaf ears. Nearly a year before, Gianforte himself had killed a collared wolf from the park.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GREG GIANFORTE: It was a tremendous honor to be able to harvest a wolf here in Montana.
MOTT: Last year, Montana dropped limits on how many of the canines can be killed in certain areas bordering Yellowstone. The total number of killed in those areas shot up from four a year or fewer over the last decade to 19 this season. After an outcry from conservation groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now evaluating whether Endangered Species Act protections should be returned to wolves in the Northern Rockies.
BRIAN STONER: There's a lot of panic among people when there doesn't need to be.
MOTT: That's Brian Stoner. He's a trapper and an organizer of the Montana Trappers Association's annual fur auction, where I met him. The event was about an hour north of Yellowstone. And pelts from coyotes, foxes, bobcats and more were streaming through the doors and piling up on long foldout tables. In the hours to come, fur will fill the fairground hall.
STONER: I wouldn't be surprised if we had a wolf or two that showed up by tomorrow.
MOTT: As he walked me through the tables, he said putting a value on each pelt is as much an art as a science. He used a bobcat pelt as an example.
STONER: But you'll notice it has some spots in here, kind of in the center of the belly, but it gets a little weakened down here.
MOTT: For Stoner, wildlife is livelihood. And it's also a lot more than that. He said trappers have a unique relationship with animals that lots of outsiders don't understand. And they would not support rules that could cause extinction. He said what motivates him is...
STONER: As crazy as it sounds, a love of the animals. While I do go out there with the intent of harvesting these animals - and I know that I'm killing them; I'm removing them from the population - I also know the dynamics of these animals. I know that they're able to breed, able to replenish. The last thing I want to do is trap the last of anything.
MOTT: When it comes to wolves, he said harvest numbers this year are right on par with years past, at least looking at the state as a whole.
STONER: The only thing that has changed is the fact that the wolves that are in the Yellowstone region - they got harvested more so than they have in past.
MOTT: Statewide, the 273 wolves killed this season in Montana is actually the lowest number since 2017. Stoner said wolf populations bounce back quickly, and the state sets guidelines based on science and provides backstops if the hunt gets out of hand. This season, Montana closed wolf hunting in the region around Yellowstone in February, about a month ahead of schedule.
STONER: I think it's a lot of hoopla about nothing.
(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE ENGINE STARTING)
MOTT: Back near the park boundary, a tiny airplane about the size of a motorcycle with wings is taking off to zigzag overhead, looking for wolves. It's part of Yellowstone wolf biologist Doug Smith's research. He says wolf populations do recover fast, and this year's hunt doesn't mean the park's wolves are going extinct. But this much wolf death also disrupts the animals' deeper social dynamics.
SMITH: This winter, what we experienced was catastrophic mortality.
MOTT: Catastrophic, he says, because Yellowstone is a unique natural laboratory for studying wolves. Scientists here have learned about wolf genetics and behavior and their role in the ecosystem more broadly.
SMITH: You know, our claim to fame with wolf research was we have the best data in the world in an unexploited-by-humans population. We don't have that now. And that's, I think, a shame and a tragedy.
MOTT: Smith emphasized his research team's 27-year-long study on what, when and where Yellowstone wolves are eating. He said that data can help answer questions about how to protect livestock from wolves and game animals that both draw tourists and provide food for local hunters.
SMITH: That's the flash point for wolves almost everywhere. And so if we know kind of the base rate of what wolves to elk, bison and deer, managers outside of national parks can use that to help make decisions about what they're doing.
MOTT: Smith says the very thing that makes Yellowstone wolves unique makes them particularly vulnerable to hunting. Used to seeing humans lining the road of the park, they don't exactly hide from people. And people spend an estimated $30 million a year of wolf watching around Yellowstone. Smith said wolf-hunting seasons like this one can't become every year events. Hunting can help build tolerance for wolves. But he said they also need places like Yellowstone.
SMITH: So wolves can be wolves, and nature can be nature.
MOTT: For NPR News, I'm Nick Mott in Yellowstone National Park.
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