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Bison feed wolves

A wolf pack surrounds a weak bison in 2005 in the Pelican Valley. Yellowstone National Park’s senior wildlife biologist Doug Smith is trying to find ways for the park's wolves to avoid contact with humans.

JACKSON — Wolf biologist Doug Smith wants to smarten up Yellowstone’s wolves.

As Yellowstone National Park’s senior wildlife biologist, Smith has witnessed naive, habituated wolves being hunted down easily outside of the park, where people can legally point rifles instead of cameras. Since wolf hunting seasons outside the 2.2-million-acre park’s borders in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming aren’t going to come to an end, Smith wants to start teaching wolves a life-saving lesson: People aren’t safe.

“Right now, if they’re crossing the road we may leave them alone,” Smith told the News&Guide this week. “Now we’re thinking of pounding them. If you get close to people, you’re going to get hit.”

Being “hit,” he explained, means hazing wolves, with either paintball or beanbag guns. Making such a major change to Yellowstone’s roadside wolf-watching policy — if it goes through — would be the result of introspection.

“I’m the one who said having a wolf crossing the road was OK,” Smith said, “but now I’m thinking maybe it’s not.

“Having a wolf not wary of a person, that’s a product derived from the park,” he said. “Those were wolves that lived 99 percent of the time in the park. That’s on us, so what do we do? To be honest I don’t know, but now everything is on the table.”

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Typically, a few of Yellowstone’s 100 or so wolves are killed annually in state-sanctioned hunts, although in the worst year, 2012, a dozen died. The inherent conflict between preserving wildlife unimpaired within the park and honoring the tradition of hunting outside the park tends to get attention when the most famed of Yellowstone wolves die from rifle fire.

That happened, again, when a Cooke City, Montana, hunter killed wolf 926F on Nov. 24. The hunter’s trophy was a highly habituated former alpha female of the Lamar Canyon Pack, with a lineage that traced to the 1995 wolf reintroduction. It was the same fate as the world-famous lobo’s mother, known as “06,” and it sparked an online fury, as well as calls for a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks investigation.

Despite rampant hearsay, Montana wardens reached Tuesday morning said they had not uncovered any indication of wrongdoing.

“We have no reason to believe that this kill was unlawful,” said Adam Pankratz, the state’s Region 3 warden captain. “I’ve gotten a lot of a calls from a lot of people who said ‘I’ve heard that’ or ‘I read this,’ but we have not spoken to anyone who was an eyewitness or had any evidence. We’ve got nothing really to go on at this point.”

Yellowstone managers considering a policy shift to discourage wolf-people interactions isn’t altogether new. The park has a habituated wolf management plan of 2002 vintage, Smith said, but a review of that plan concluded that aversive conditioning and hazing wouldn’t be effective at reversing habituated behavior.

Then Yellowstone Wolf Project scientists and rangers learned otherwise from experience.

“It does work,” Smith said. “That makes me think that we need to haze these wolves harder. All I ask is that visitors meet us halfway.”

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Gardiner, Montana, resident and avid wolf watcher Deby Dixon looked back at 926F as a particularly habituated wolf, one that grew up with cameras and spotting scopes pointed at her. The 7 1/2-year-old graying black female was also a bucket-list lobo that Lamar Valley visitors set out to see.

“Everybody that came to Yellowstone to see the wolves, they came to see her,” Dixon said. “That was their goal.”

A small wolf, at just about 80 pounds, 926F was a great-great-great-grandaughter of wolf No. 9, part of the first batch of wolves reintroduced into Yellowstone 23 years ago from Alberta.

Dixon, like many wolf watchers, is opposed to hunting wolves right outside Yellowstone’s boundaries, but she also appreciates that Montana managers treat areas abutting the park differently.

Two hunt zones bordering the park’s northern border allow no more than four wolves to be killed total, which are among the most conservative seasons in a state that does not cap harvest in most areas.

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“We’ve been very fortunate that the quota was lowered, and they’ve kept it lower despite complaints from the hunters,” Dixon said. “But still, you’re losing something that was loved by thousands and millions of people that came to Yellowstone.

“She educated them, gave them this joy of seeing a wolf in the wild,” she said. “She’s worth so much more alive.”

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It remains to be seen how wolf watchers, who are a fervent bunch, would receive a policy change about up-close viewing, but Smith knows it will be a tough sell.

“It’s the coolest thing in the world to see a wolf up close, and you’re going to tell somebody that you can’t do it,” the longtime Yellowstone Wolf Project leader said. “Yellowstone is the best place in the world to observe free-ranging wolves. People come here from all over the world to see wolves. If it’s your first trip to the park and if a wolf’s headed right at you on the road and you’re expected to drive on, that’s a big ask.”

But the most devoted of wolf watchers was hopeful that his community would buy in. That person, Silver Gate, Montana resident Rick McIntyre, a recent Yellowstone Wolf Project retiree, said he was “100 percent for” what Smith is proposing.

“We have to do something,” McIntyre said. “It will take a lot of good people working together, and a lot of help from park visitors and local people.

“But perhaps that’s going to be the outcome of the story of 926,” he said, “that her death will accomplish some good, and we’ll all come together to do a better job on managing crowds and roads and wolves in Yellowstone.”

Smith’s pitch to the wolf-watching community is that aggressive hazing — if that’s what Yellowstone chooses — will be for their own benefit.

“I’m trying to preserve their opportunity as much as possible,” Smith said, “and that means keeping wolves alive.”

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