A wolf that researchers in Yellowstone National Park have followed since she was born 6 years ago, and was unusually popular with visitors and photographers, was shot last week by a hunter in Wyoming. The wolf, known to the park's wolf researchers as 832F, was wearing a radio collar, like several others that have died in this season's wolf hunt. She was also the third—and last—of the projects' wolves outfitted with a specialized GPS collar that collected data every 30 minutes, allowing the scientists' to track her movements in fine detail. The GPS data are important to understanding the effect of wolves on the park's elk population, says Douglas Smith, a wildlife biologist and the wolf project's leader. "We don't have any wolves with these GPS collars now," Smith says.
Beyond the loss of the GPS data, the death of 832F affects the project's study in other ways, Smith adds. The project, which is partly funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, is designed to understand the natural life cycle of wolves unexploited by humans. But this season alone, hunters have shot seven wolves—including 832F—that primarily used the park, and were part of the study.
Because 832F was the alpha, or breeding, female in the Lamar Canyon Pack, her death is also likely to have "important social impacts" on the park's wolves, Smith says. Wolves in the park do attack and kill one another, and in some of these cases, the alpha female has died—an event that can lead to the pack's break-up. 832F had joined with two brothers, 754M and 755M, to form the Lamar Canyon Pack, and almost immediately began drawing attention to herself, Smith says. "She was probably the park's most famous wolf, very popular with wolf-watchers, because she was odd. Usually the males are the best hunters and killers. But she went against the norm. She was the best hunter in her pack, and was clearly in charge. She killed many elk, and ran roughshod over those two brothers."
One of the brothers, the beta-male 754M, was also shot dead by a hunter in Wyoming earlier this season. He, too, wore a radio collar. Both wolves were far from the Lamar Valley—and about 15 miles beyond the safety of the Yellowstone park boundary. "They came back to the park after the death of 754M," Smith says, "and then they went right back to the same area in Wyoming, probably to hunt elk."
Although only one wolf pack from Yellowstone has ever been found killing livestock outside of the park, they do hunt elk beyond the park's borders. Still, for this pack, the excursions were unusual; it had never ventured outside of Yellowstone until this year.
Smith does not yet know how the surviving wolves in the Lamar pack are responding to the death of their alpha female, 832F. The pack still has its alpha male, 755M, with whom 832F had three litters. Several young females are also still alive, but they are the daughters of 755M. "For the pack to produce pups, they'll need to get a new alpha female from outside," Smith says. The Lamar pack may also have trouble surviving because it lost two of its best hunters.
Yellowstone's wolves now number 81, "which is still a healthy population," says Smith, who adds that the park has lost about 8% of its wolves to hunters this year. He estimates that the population can withstand losses of 15% to 20% before its demographics are affected.
Wyoming's Game and Fish Department had set a quota of eight wolves for hunters in the wolf hunting trophy zone where 832F and 754M were killed. With the death of 832F, that quota has now been reached, and the area is closed to such hunts until next year.
The Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Commission, which oversees the wolf hunts in that state, has also just closed two wolf-hunting zones adjacent to Yellowstone National Park's northwestern boundary for the remainder of the season. Five wolves, including three others that had radio collars, were killed in these areas in recent weeks. The two zones will also not be open for the wolf trapping season, which begins on 15 December.