A new bill introduced in the Montana Senate (Senate Bill 185) would close areas along the northern border of Yellowstone National Park to wolf hunting and trapping. The bill speaks to a decades-long debate over whether some level of protection should exist for wolves that primarily live within the park but occasionally wander into Montana.
SB 185 would effectively close two “wolf management units” adjacent to the northern boundary of the park. Under current hunting and trapping regulations, only a total of four wolves can be killed in these two areas. Compare that to the 200 to 250 wolves that are killed by hunters and trappers statewide each year. The effect of closing these areas on Montana’s annual wolf “harvest” would be negligible — and it would not affect landowners’ ability to kill wolves in defense of their livestock or dogs. Yet it would significantly impact wolves that live most of their lives in the park: according to the Billings Gazette, 30 of the 37 Yellowstone wolves that have been killed by hunters since wolf hunting began in Montana in 2009 were killed within these two management units.
Yellowstone is one of the best places in the world to observe wolves in the wild. Every year, many thousands of people travel from every corner of the globe just for that opportunity — and spend millions of dollars in local communities while they’re at it. A 2016 survey by the National Park Service found that 68 percent of Yellowstone Park visitors felt wolves were “extremely” or “very” important.
Yet, another study published that same year indicated that the legal hunting and trapping of even a few wolves right outside Yellowstone and Denali national parks’ boundaries dramatically reduced the odds of sighting a wolf within the parks. One explanation for this, according to the study’s authors, is that wolves that are less wary of humans and contribute disproportionately to viewing opportunities could also be more vulnerable to hunters and trappers when they step across the parks’ invisible boundaries.
The consequences of allowing even a small number of wolves to be killed in areas near Yellowstone could be devastating to the region’s reputation and the local economy. When a wolf known as “Spitfire” was killed by a hunter in one of these management units last November, it made international headlines, caused an “outpouring of grief, rage and anger,” and left some Yellowstone-area ecotourism guides worried that it would hurt their business. It can also disrupt valuable research like that being done by the Yellowstone Wolf Project, which has produced some of the most significant and detailed reports on wolf behavior in the world.
I grew up a hunter. I believe there are species and situations for which hunting makes sense. Killing wolves along the undetectable edges of our national parks is simply not one of them. The opportunity to witness wolves in our national parks provides an economic boon to local economies and profound personal experiences to people from all over the world. Killing these animals along our parks’ borders risks taking those opportunities away, and cuts at the core of a crucial reason we have parks at all.
The long-running debate over whether to close certain areas just outside Yellowstone Park to protect some of its most admired wildlife is complex; however, SB 185 offers a targeted, warranted solution. Closing areas just north of the park would hardly affect Montana wolf management, but would produce outsized benefits for local communities, the park’s world-renowned wolves, and the millions of people whose lives are enriched by watching them, hearing them or simply knowing they’re there. Let’s put Yellowstone wolves off-limits.
Zack Strong is an attorney and wildlife advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Bozeman.