Cat Urbigkit: Yellowstone Sparks Controversy Over Predator State Management Part 1

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

It was a damning revelation that the wolf hunt outside of Yellowstone National Park had “altered pack behavior, damaged the search.” The allegation came from Yellowstone National Park (YNP) biologist Doug Smith, as reported by WyoFile’s Mike Koshmrl.

The article, which has since received wide circulation, claims that wolf hunting outside the park has resulted in “very unusual mating behavior” in the park’s wolf packs, and quotes Smith: “C’ It broke the social structure, it messed with the hierarchy, and it actually produced more pups. It’s a guess, but it’s what I would call an artificial stimulation of the wolf’s reproductive capacity. Entering and killing them stimulates reproduction.

I call “bullshit” on this claim. Sorry to be vulgar, but my search for a suitable substitute could not generate a better descriptor for these claims.

The WyoFile article correctly reported that the majority of wolf packs in the park usually produce single litters.

But that’s never been the case for the wolf packs inhabiting the northern Yellowstone Range — the area of ​​origin for most wolves killed in the Montana wolf hunts that have caused so much concern among conservation officials. Yellowstone.

Although the North Range is only 10% of the national park, it has been the stronghold of the wolf population as it was once home to Yellowstone’s largest elk herd.


Figure 1: Yellowstone North Range. Source: National Park Service


Several litters begin in 1997

Shortly after the arrival of Canadian gray wolves at the YNP in 1995 and 1996, Smith was part of the team that documented several litters in individual wolf packs in the park, and Smith is the lead author of the reports. yearly on YNP wolf projects.

In 1997, YNP documented 13 litters of pups in 9 wolf packs, with the Rose Creek pack having 22 pups in three litters, and the Druid Peak and Chief Joseph packs each producing two litters. All but Chief Joseph’s pack inhabited the northern part of the park.

The following year, four packs had multiple litters, including two packs on the North Range. The following year (1999), the Rose Creek pack had three breeding females giving birth to young in the northern range – for the third consecutive year of multiple litters in this pack. In 2000, this pack did it again, as did the Druid Peak pack with its 21 puppies born in three litters.

The park population peaked at 174 wolves in 2003, with 7 packs crowded into the northern range, and the Druid Peak pack again produced two or three litters of pups. Then the population started its downward trend.

In 2010, Smith and his wolf team wrote that the park’s wolf population had declined to 97 wolves, “a decline that was driven by disease and dietary stress, and suggests a lower long-term population balance. for wolves, especially on the northern range.

Northern range wolves have declined by 60% since 2007, compared to a 23% decline for interior wolves over the same period. Wolves in the northern range are much more dependent on elk as a food source, whose population has declined by 70% since 1994, than interior wolves who feed on elk and bison, which are still widely available inside the park.


Figure 2: Numbers of northern range elk, 1978-2018. Source: Mossley and Mundinger, Rangelands (2018).


The YNP’s annual wolf reports found that wolves killing other wolves accounted for most of the natural mortalities, but mange and distemper also took their toll. As the overall wolf population declined, existing packs in the northern range dwindled, but these territories were soon occupied by the formation of new packs.

In 2012, Smith wrote that wolf hunting outside the park resulted in the deaths of 12 wolves who lived primarily in the park, but the park’s wolf packs produced smaller litters of pups – the opposite of his current claim that hunting outside the park increased pup production. .

In 2016, Smith and two co-authors wrote about the multiple litters of wolves in the northern Yellowstone range, explaining, “This phenomenon is thought to be largely influenced by Yellowstone’s prey abundance, density of wolves and more complex pack structures containing multiple, unrelated, opposites. sex pack members.

Junction & Elk Packs

In the recent WyoFile article, Smith specifically noted that there were several pregnant females in the Junction and Wapiti packs this year, suggesting that this may be due to mortality caused by hunting. But annual reports written by Smith reported that these packs both have histories of repeatedly producing multiple litters.

The Junction Butte pack produced four litters of puppies each year in 2018, 2019 and 2020, and had several litters before those 4 litter years. The Wapiti Lake pack, which moved its territory west from the Junction Butte pack, has had multiple litters each year since 2017.

If these wolf packs have multiple litters again this year, that fits perfectly not only with their pack’s history, but also with the history of wolves that have used the northern range since wolves were first introduced. released into the park over 25 years ago.

Twenty years ago, it was the Druid Peak and Rose Creek wolf packs that inhabited the North Range and repeatedly produced multiple litters. “Wolves also took advantage of favorable YNP conditions by having multiple litters per pack,” Smith wrote in a book published over a decade ago, noting that in 2000 the Druid Peak pack produced 21 puppies in 3 carried, “increasing their pack”. size at 37 wolves and makes it one of the largest wolf packs on record.

It’s not scientific

Rather than trying to portray the production of multiple litters as abnormal behavior caused by hunting as Smith currently does, just two years ago, he told a different story.

In the 2020 Wolf Report, Smith wrote, “The prevalence of multiple litters in wolf packs in NYP (~25% of packs per year) has changed little over the past two decades. Large, socially complex packs, higher wolf densities and food abundance are thought to influence the prevalence of multiple litters and may partly explain the increase this year.

That report – dated just two years ago – noted that producing 18 puppies from four litters in one year put the “exceptional size” of the Junction pack at 35 members.

Rather than the “highly unusual mating behavior” it now claims to be, Smith and his colleagues inside the park had documented this behavior on the Yellowstone North Range, year after year, for decades – and more specifically in the two wolf packs he cited in the article.

Science

While Smith tries to recast the cause of multiple litters in Yellowstone’s wolf population, the science doesn’t back up his claims — and he knows it, since he writes the annual reports on wolf research and monitoring.

What’s interesting is what appears to be a pattern of increasing and peaking the number of wolves in the park, before falling into decline, to start the cycle all over again. The spike and decline indicate that when the park’s wolf population reaches a certain point, the habitat is saturated and the population will soon plummet – with increased competition for a limited number of prey, the wolves will lose their condition and become themselves themselves prey to a variety of ailments, from mange and disease, to wolves killing their own.

A researcher from Idaho examined the characteristics of multiple breeding individuals in central Idaho and Yellowstone wolf populations and suggested, “The presence of multiple breeding individuals varied greatly by group and year, but the density was a strong predictor of the prevalence of multiple breeding females. Such a finding suggests that reproductive opportunities are limited in this species and when they are, females may resort to polygamy. …Choosing to stay in groups and share breeding opportunities when density is high implies that the habitat is saturated.

Driven by desire

What should the public think of this altered story from YNP? I conclude that this is purely political, driven by the desire of Yellowstone National Park officials to create public pressure to change the wolf hunting policies of national wildlife agencies in neighboring states.

If Yellowstone’s northern range is saturated with wolves and more of those wolves extend into Montana where the wolf population remains 6-8 times above recovery goals, Montana should just sit back and let Yellowstone decide how the state should manage its wolves? I do not think so.

The fact that thousands of people line the roads of Yellowstone daily to watch wolves and human-habituated bears, while park officials say they are managing under “natural” conditions, is at the heart of controversies involving predator management in states adjacent to the park.

The National Park Service created this mess but points the finger at state managers. I’ll get to that in part two of this series next week.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the beach in Sublette County, Wyoming. His column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

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