Yellowstone National Park's gray wolf population has fallen to about 80 wolves, officials say — less than half of the park's high population mark.
While leaders in Yellowstone will not have an accurate count until the fall is visible after surviving pups, the top biologist in the park does not expect numbers to rise dramatically after litters are included in population estimates.
"Many of them die, unfortunately. Gray pup survival is around 7 percent," said Doug Smith, long-time project leader for the Yellowstone Wolf Restoration Project, in a video broadcast on the Facebook page of the park. "Eighty wolves are sort of a drop from what we had," said Smith, noting that back in 2003 Yellowstone had as many as 174 wolves in the park.
Numbers dropped to about 100 people in the park in 2008, but have since dropped ; Smith largely blamed disease outbreaks — including distemper, mange, and parvo virus — and packs moving out of the park for decline. Smith said wolves killing wolves are the leading cause of natural mortality. "It's fiercely territorial," he said. Wolves in the park have an 80% chance of surviving for a given year, Smith said, and the species typically lives in the wilderness of the park for only five to six years. He said a mortality rate of 20 percent is high, but characteristic of wolf ecology. "They were built to withstand death," said Smith. "They have a high turnover rate ; they are dealing with death." According to estimates from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, there are still about 250 wolves in the wild outside of Yellowstone in Wyoming.
Smith said his staff are working to prevent unnecessary mortality to people in Yellowstone packs. "When wolves leave the park, the rules change," he said. "The task within the park of large carnivore biologists is to preserve the species. But once a wolf wanders beyond the park's invisible boundaries, then wolf treatment changes in conservation." Wyoming's second hunting season recently ended with hunters unable even with an expanded season to fill a 58-wolf quota. Approximately another 50 wolves were lethally removed last year by the trappers in conflict management from the Game and Fish and USDA Wildlife Services.
Smith suggested that only a few wolves are killed in hunts near park boundaries from Yellowstone packs, but he said the harvest of the wrong individual could upset the dynamics of the pack. Together with other national parks, including Grand Teton and Denali, Yellowstone biologists are studying the effects of hunting. This is part of an effort to preserve not only a safe population, but also a social structure. "If you lose the wrong person at the wrong time, the pack dynamics can be destabilized," Smith said. Smith disputed complaints about the reintroduction of the wrong wolves into Yellowstone as he took questions on Facebook Live.
Some argue that the animals brought to the park were the subspecies canis lupus occidentalis (the northwestern or Canadian wolf) rather than Canis lupus irremotus (the northern wolf of the Rocky Mountain). "The word Canadian is emphasized by many people who don't like wolves ," Smith said. "These wolves are a difference in whiskers from the wolves who were here." Smith said that all wolves can interbreed, and very little geography can isolate subspecies of wolf, saying they should all be called "North American wolves." He said the wolves in the south were smaller than the north, and the wolves reintroduced in Yellowstone were latitudinally different from the wolves that lived in Wyoming before.
He said the difference was not sufficiently significant to make a difference, though. Smith also defended the reintroduction and, with most visitors to the region, pointed to the species ' popularity. "Wolves are among Yellowstone's top attractions," he said. "And seeing wolves is one of the best places in the world."