Too close to home

It started with a Facebook message from a friend: “What is all this (BS) I hear about 7 YNP wolves shot outside the park?”

Joe hadn’t ever reacted like this about wolves — not when they were removed from Endangered Species Act protections in Idaho and Montana, not when hunting seasons began in both states, not even when Wyoming was handed management reins despite a biologically flawed plan that allows wolves to be killed any time, anywhere and any way in more than 80 percent of the state.

Now he was incensed, like many others who’d spent memorable outings watching some of the very wolves he now feared dead.

Stay tuned for confirmation, I cautioned. Sure enough, seven wolves dead. Two were “dispersers” that hadn’t spent much time in the park of late, but three were from packs synonymous with the Yellowstone wolf mystique — the Mollies, Blacktail Plateau and Lamar Canyon.

An emotion stirred in me unlike any since the restoration of wolves to Yellowstone in 1995 after a seven-decade absence.

Now, I have long maintained that wolves are neither demons nor deities. Irrational assertions from the feverish anti- and pro-wolf crowds have only inflamed emotions over a creature that simply plays a vital role in a healthy ecology — and, as it turns out, economy.

All the bluster about wolves being exotic, over-sized, parasite-ridden wanton killers that have wiped out half the livestock and elk populations of the Northern Rockies is no more or less ridiculous than suggestions that anyone who wishes to hunt a wolf should have their guns impounded, be imprisoned, or worse.

Further, I understood that even with Endangered Species Act protections many wolves from this new “non-essential experimental” population would necessarily perish due to livestock predation, as nearly 2,000 have from government bullets since 1995. I also recognized that hunting is a tool to help maintain balance among wildlife populations, including wolves.

Even those wolves largely confined to Yellowstone I readily acknowledged as wild animals in a wild world fraught with peril.

They would starve. They would contract lethal diseases. They would die from the thrash of an elk hoof, the swat of a grizzly bear paw, or in the clenched jaws of another turf-hungry wolf.

At the same time, for 17 years tens of thousands of people have come to Yellowstone solely for the privilege of viewing a wolf in the wild. Never could they envision any of the 88 wolves roaming the park today as victims of high-powered rifles.

Yellowstone, at least, seemed a safe zone for a select group of packs. Now that image is shattered.

The issue now is how to limit similar tales that elicit the outcry we’re seeing today. Montana has an opportunity to show leadership and avoid the international black eye that’s sure to follow if more Yellowstone wolves die.

First and foremost is reversing course on proposed wolf trapping — a practice neither Wyoming nor Idaho allows in Greater Yellowstone — in areas adjacent to Yellowstone. Further, Montana should consider reducing wolf quotas or eliminating hunts altogether in units surrounding the park.

After all, Yellowstone-area wolf populations have stabilized. Livestock predation has been negligible or, in the case of Gallatin County, non-existent. Montana shouldn’t try to meet its population objectives on the backs of Yellowstone wolves.

Already this fall in Montana, 23 wolves have been killed with firearms near the park. The one-two punch of hunting and trapping surely will have a dramatic impact on an animal whose presence benefits the park and gateway communities to the direct tune of $35.5 million annually.

Some contend that wolves are wolves, and that these Yellowstone animals are no different than any of the 1,600 others in the Northern Rockies. They also say the loss of a handful of Yellowstone wolves won’t impact the overall population. Other wolves will be collared, viewing will continue, and research will carry on.

They miss the point. These weren’t just any wolves.

Just ask my Facebook friend Joe and the 3 1/2 million other folks who visit Yellowstone very year.

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