As more wolves are killed around Yellowstone National Park, numerous groups are upping the pressure on both state and federal agencies to reduce or stop the death count.

After the Associated Press reported on Jan. 6 that 20 wolves from packs residing in Yellowstone National Park have been shot and killed, concern has grown over what continued trapping could mean for tourism, let alone the park’s research. Out of the 20 wolves, 15 were shot in Montana, and Montana’s trapping and snaring season, which started three weeks ago, is slated to run through mid-March. One more park wolf has been killed in the past week.

In response, 30 ecotourism business owners who operate in and around the Park sent a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland last week, asking her to relist the gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act.

Concerned about recently passed state laws that have legalized more methods to hunt and trap wolves and increased the limit to 10 wolves per trapper, the business owners are worried Yellowstone could lose more of the estimated 94 wolves that remain.

"Wolves are not just essential to my business but make up 70% of my sales as a wildlife photographer and gallery owner. My customers travel from all over the world for a chance to see a wild Yellowstone wolf. The current slaughter of Yellowstone wolves will be detrimental to my livelihood,” said Chris T. Hoff, photographer and owner of Yellowstone Wild the Gallery.

As of Jan. 12, it’s been 26 years since the first eight wolves to be reintroduced were brought to Yellowstone Park. Now, as the park prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday, some are wondering if the killing of so many wolves will give the park and the surrounding regions a black eye.

Visitor polling in Yellowstone consistently places wildlife viewing in the top three reasons people want to visit the park. In 2005, when park visitation was more than 2.8 million, the annual economic contribution from wolf viewing was estimated at around $35.5 million. Park visitation has almost doubled to more than 4.4 million visitors in 2021 while the economic impact is now about $80 million annually.

Outside the park, most residents of the Paradise Valley are directly or indirectly affected by the recreational tourism industry driven by the park. The lodging industry in Paradise Valley alone generates $1.8 million in state taxes, driven in large part by tourists coming to Yellowstone.

While Gov. Greg Gianforte repeatedly says that Montana is “open for business,” those who depend on wolf tourism are worried about being forced to close. Up until now, Yellowstone wolves have offered great opportunities for wildlife viewing, particularly in the Lamar Valley. But guides say hunted wolves are less tolerant of people and less likely to be visible to the public.

“The states around Yellowstone Park fail to make any viable economic argument for the need to dramatically reduce wolf populations. At the same time, they pay no regard to the harm inflicted on our prosperous ecotourism industry. This lack of rationale reveals an underlying pathology that threatens not only our livelihoods with extinction, but the wolf population itself. There couldn’t be a more clear-cut case for an imminent threat to a species,” said Nathan Varley, wildlife biologist and owner of Yellowstone Wolf Tracker.

After wolves in the Northern Rockies came off the endangered species list in 2011, Montana put a low quota – no more than five - on the number of wolves that could be killed in hunting districts 313 and 316, which are just north of the park border in Park County. But that changed in August, when a Fish, Wildlife & Parks commission, appointed almost entirely by Gianforte, eliminated the quotas, creating only advisory quotas for each FWP region.

In September, after three wolf pups were killed outside the park in the early days of Montana’s hunting season, Yellowstone Park superintendent Cam Sholly asked Gianforte to stop hunting and trapping around the park. The AP reported Sholly sent a second more urgent letter on Dec. 16, to which Gianforte responded, saying it was up to the FWP commission to make that decision.

As of Jan. 14, Region 3, which includes districts 313 and 316, reports 65 wolves have been killed out of a total of 160 statewide. The commission is required to review once 82 wolves are dead in Region 3 but they don’t have to stop the season.

In September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it would review the wolves’ status to determine if relisting is warranted. The problem for some is a USFWS review takes up to a year. The businesses asked Haaland to expedite the review.

“We recognize that living with wolves on the landscape has a cost; conflict mitigation and compensation for depredations takes time, money, and resources to address. However, wolves are essential to the wildness of the Greater Yellowstone region and to the region’s thriving tourism economy,” the letter said.

In the meantime, some are trying to make changes at the local instead of the federal level.

The Gateways to Yellowstone Business Coalition – some of the members also signed the Haaland letter – is calling on the Gianforte and FWP commission to save the livelihoods of the coalition and reinstate the two-wolf quotas in districts 313 and 316.
“In sum, managing wolves with a conservative harvest close to the boundary of Yellowstone but using less conservative harvests farther away from Yellowstone Park within Park County (if that is what those locals so choose) could lessen much of the controversy,” wrote the coalition on its website.

But they aren’t the only ones going that route. The Endangered Species Coalition also recently asked its supporters to petition Gianforte and FWP Director Hank Worsech to close 313 and 316 to hunting and trapping.

In late August, the Endangered Species Coalition was one of the first groups to petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct a status review of the gray wolf. By then, several groups had already called for emergency relisting of the wolf, but the Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t act, choosing instead to initiate the review.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.