Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Hunters killed more Yellowstone wolves that left the park's borders in recent months than any season since the animal was reintroduced to the region in 1995.
Twenty gray wolves were shot and killed after wandering from Yellowstone National Park — 15 were killed in Montana, and five killed in Idaho and Wyoming, according to data provided to the Associated Press from the National Parks Service. The most recent death was reported on New Year's Day along the park's northern Montana border.
That leaves an estimated 94 wolves still in Yellowstone, according to park officials, who told the AP the recent string of deaths is "a significant setback for the species' long-term viability and for wolf research."
The Phantom Lake Pack, which once boasted 13 healthy pups, was essentially eliminated after almost all of its members were killed in October and November, according to the AP.
Montana's hunting and wolf-trapping season is just ramping up, and park officials told the AP that more wolves are expected to die after wandering from Yellowstone.
Is it legal to hunt wolves?
You can legally hunt wolves in three Mountain West states — Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
Wisconsin had permitted a wolf hunt, although the fall 2022 season was put on hold in December after animal rights groups sued.
Wolf hunting has been legal in Alaska for years, the only state in the U.S. where wolves have never been threatened or endangered.
Montana, where the majority of wolves that wandered from Yellowstone were killed, has three designated hunting seasons for the animal.
- Archery season runs from Sept. 4 to Sept. 14, the general season from Sept. 15 to March 15 and trapping season from Nov. 29 to Feb. 28.
Hunters can take up to 20 wolves, "with no more than 10 via hunting and no more than 10 via trapping," according to the state's fish and game department.
According to the AP, in December Yellowstone Park Superintendent Cam Sholly urged Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte to shut down the wolf hunting season, concerned about the "extraordinary number of Yellowstone wolves already killed."
"Once a wolf exits the park and enters lands in the State of Montana it may be harvested pursuant to regulations established by the (state wildlife) Commission under Montana law," Gianforte responded, according to the AP.
Gianforte, an avid hunter, received a warning from a Montana game warden in 2020 after he trapped and shot a wolf without taking the trapper education course mandated by the state. The wolf was killed roughly 10 miles from the Yellowstone border, and had a radio collar.
In July, a bill passed by the Idaho Legislature took effect, establishing a year-round trapping season for wolves on private property, and allowing hunters to purchase an unlimited number of tags.
- The bill also eliminated many restrictions on wolf hunting, including how the animal can be killed, and essentially extends the current laws for hunting foxes and coyotes, to wolves.
- The state has an estimated 1,500 wolves, according to Idaho News 6. The changes prompted a public outcry from some animal rights groups, but found support among hunters, the Spokesman Review reported.
Wyoming issued 47 gray wolf tags for the 2021 hunt, three less than the year prior. The species was taken off Wyoming's endangered species list in 2017, and officials say the state's population has been healthy since.
- Even when wolves were listed as endangered, roughly 20 were killed each year in Wyoming by state officials through depredation efforts, according to the Casper Star-Tribune.
- For most of the state, the season starts Sept. 15 and ends Dec. 31, according to Wyoming's fish and game department.
Are there wolves in Utah?
Confirmed wolf sightings in Utah are rare — since 1995, there have only been 15 to 20. Most have been in counties near Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado. Officials say there is not evidence of a pack.
But on Tuesday, hunters in northeastern Utah found what could be the first wolf discovered in the state in years, although officials from the Division of Wildlife Resources say the animal, found dead on the side of the road in Duchesne County, is likely a hybrid.
Wildlife officials told the Deseret News there is no confirmation whether the animal is a wolf or a wolf-dog hybrid. DNA samples sent to a lab to undergo genetic testing, and results could be several months away.
"It seems like the characteristics are more consistent with a wolf-dog hybrid because of size, coloration and skull characteristics," said Tonya Kieffer-Selby, conservation outreach manager for the Division of Wildlife, based in Vernal.
Over the years, hunters have reported hearing and seeing wolves, usually on the northern slope of the Uinta Mountains, and in Morgan, Rich and Cache Counties.
The sightings are often large coyotes — sometimes they're wolf-dog hybrids like what officials say was discovered on Tuesday, or even huskies. In 2008, one man even shot a wolf-dog in Box Elder County thinking it was the real thing.
However, in 2020 a rancher in Rich County found a calf that had been killed by a gray wolf. His claim was substantiated by bite marks, tracks and scat. Officials set traps, but they were unsuccessful and were pulled about a month later.