Wolf Hunting May Be Damaging Yellowstone National Park Research, Pack Hierarchies

by Amy Myers

The wolf population at Yellowstone National Park has had a positive effect on the ecosystem, but researchers say hunting habits may be altering pack behavior.

The presence of wolves at Yellowstone has forced prey animals, like deer and bison, to change their grazing patterns. Instead of sticking to their usual spots, they’ve started to migrate towards more open areas where they can spot any stalking predators from afar. This has allowed shrubbery and foliage to grow back where once it was barren.

But according to senior wildlife biologist Doug Smith, this is where the good news ends. In the last month, Smith and his team have twice observed a concerning change in mating behavior. Apparently, the number of wolves engaging in mating activities has increased dramatically. Per WyoFile, typically, only the pack’s dominate male and female mate. However, now that hunters and trappers have taken down 25 wolves outside of Yellowstone’s borders, several non-dominant females were engaging in the rituals. This meant that the alpha was not preventing this behavior, proving that pack hierarchies were beginning to change.

“We have multiple females pregnant in at least two packs — Junction and Wapiti — that could be due to the mortality that we’ve experienced,” Smith said. “It’s broken apart the social structure, it’s messed with the hierarchy, and it’s actually produced more pups. Now this is a hypothesis, but this is what I would call an artificial stimulation of wolf reproductive capacity. By going in and killing them, you stimulate reproduction.”  

“The question now is …  let’s see what happens,” Smith continued. “But we really don’t want that, because it is not aligned with the National Park Service mission. The National Park Service mission is to protect natural processes.”

Yellowstone Wolves Have Adopted ‘Skittish’ Behavior Due to Hunting Habits

Of course, the hunters and trappers are only taking advantage of what the season entails. So long as they stay within bag limits, use legal equipment and only hunt during the allotted season, it’s completely legal. Unfortunately, this has nevertheless forced wolves in the area to become “skittish” of humans, what Gardiner naturalist and biologist Nathan Varley, head of the Yellowstone Wolf Tracker guiding service, calls his “worst-case scenario.”

“Wolves that survive hunting events, they quickly learn that there’s survival value in avoiding humans,” Varley said. “And we’ve relied extensively on wolves that do not have that inclination.” 

The bottom line is that hunting patterns and Yellowstone wolf research don’t mix, and there doesn’t appear to be a clear solution in sight right now.

“Everybody is just going to look at last year’s count and this year’s count, and go what’s the big deal?” Smith said. “Well the big deal is this is no longer a natural population. It’s a human-exploited population and our job [in the National Park Service] is to have a natural population.”