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Yellowstone biologists struggle to maintain wolf research

Feb 10, 2013 - By Laura Lundquist, For the Associated Press

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK -- Yellowstone National Park has lost a record number of wolves to this year's hunting season, and that's left scientists scrambling to keep years of research alive.

So far this year, hunters have killed 12 percent of the park's wolf population, putting hunting well on its way to replacing other wolves as the leading cause of wolf mortality, said YNP wolf biologist Doug Smith.

"This is the first year that wolves were hunted on every side of the park," said Smith. "They've learned to tolerate people in the park, but that gets them in trouble if they leave. Some wandered outside the park, and within six hours, they were dead."

In 2009 and 2010, Montanans could hunt wolves. This winter, Wyoming allowed hunters to shoot wolves on sight after wolves were taken off the Endangered Species List there on Oct. 1.

Hunters killed several "collared" wolves, five of which were important members of the nine Yellowstone packs. Three wore GPS collars, which cost 10 times as much as the $350 radio collars.

"The loss of collared wolves is where the rubber meets the road - it hurts us the most," Smith said.

YNP wolf research is unique because of its duration and scope.

Long-term wildlife research is rare; most studies last two to three years. In addition, some studies are criticized for not observing enough animals.

Smith's team has gathered data for almost 20 years on a species that few have studied in the wild.

"YNP is as complete and natural as it has been in its entire history now that it has a complete predator guild," Smith said. "Everywhere else, people keep predators below their natural density."

Smith and his team make the best of that opportunity, recording extensive behavioral and population information from afar and physical data on the 340 wolves they've captured and collared.

They use that data to study wolf population dynamics, genetics, disease and interactions within a pack and with other species. The result has been 68 peer-reviewed scientific articles and a better understanding of a species that is notoriously misunderstood.

"Denali National Park claimed to follow packs for longer but didn't have the genetics and collaring to prove it," Smith said. "I'm aware of that criticism so that's partly why we collar."

This year, that scientific legacy has been knocked back by the loss of wolves.

Two collared wolves that were shot belonged to the Lamar Canyon pack, which normally lives in the north-central area of the park. They were high-ranking pack members, and their loss has caused the pack to act out of character, Smith said.

Five to six weeks ago, they left their normal territory, wandered into Wyoming and have yet to return. No one is tracking them and Smith has no idea where they are.

Wolf technician Rick McIntyre has spent almost every day since 1995 observing park wolves and said wolves without a leader are like people without one.

"There are no two species on earth that are so close (in social behavior)," McIntyre said.

The Blacktail pack is also in danger of winking out after one of its members was shot. Now only two members remain, so it's likely they'll be pushed out by another pack.

The deaths of just a few choice wolves have resulted in the likely loss or collapse of two packs and aborted the history and trend data biologists have built.

So when Smith lost contact with the Junction Butte pack in November after their only collared member was shot, he worried more of his research would be ruined.

Fortunately, Smith last week was able to breathe a little easier after he darted and collared seven wolves, two of which are in the Junction Butte pack.

But he doesn't enjoy chasing wolves or hanging out of a helicopter with a dart gun.

Without collars, the only way Smith can track packs is by relying on McIntyre and the dozens of wolf watchers who prowl the park's roads with high-powered spotting scopes and cellphones with McIntyre on speed dial. McIntyre said he relies on their extra eyes.

Several enthusiasts out Wednesday return year after year just to watch wolves, and some came from as far as the United Kingdom.

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