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Turning back the clock on Yellowstone bison

Wild Yellowstone bison are deemed worthy of our national currency. They are so revered they are on the U.S. Department of the Interior’s seal. And they are the hallowed centerpiece of Wyoming’s flag.

Apparently they’re not fit for Montana soil.

Or so insists one John Brenden, a state senator who has introduced a bill that would exterminate any wild Yellowstone bison that stray one hoof outside of Yellowstone National Park’s boundaries. And so argues Alan Doane, a representative from eastern Montana’s Dawson County who wants to make it legal for landowners to kill any bison that wander onto their property.

If these two have their way, we’ll return to the zero-tolerance frontier days of the late 1800s, when wanton slaughter of bison reduced America’s herds from perhaps 60 million to a couple dozen in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley.

Now, if you’re familiar with Montana geography, you might be asking yourself: Why would a senator from Scobey, near the Canadian border, be inserting himself — again — in the bison issue? Or why would a representative from Dawson County, 300-plus miles from the closest wild Yellowstone bison, propose a shoot-on-sight policy?

It’s a little like a pol from Miles City trying to ban liberals from Missoula.

Well, Scobey is just north of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, which received more than 60 wild Yellowstone bison last winter. To hear Brenden and his ilk tell it, the restoration of bison to Montana’s northern Plains is the camel’s nose under the tent foretelling the arrival of $25 a gallon gas, black helicopters and blue United Nations helmets.

It would put America herself in great peril.

Doane’s bill is only slightly less draconian than Brenden’s. Wild Yellowstone can migrate into Montana, but as soon as they set foot on private property they are subject to a death sentence, depending on the mood of landowners. Imagine the serenity of the Gardiner Basin shattered by the report of rifle shots aimed at Yellowstone bison in the neighborhood simply for seeking winter forage.

Doane’s motives are a little less clear than Brenden’s. Presumably he envisions a day when rogue Yellowstone bison are roaming the streets of Glendive.

Fortunately, most landowners in the Gardiner Basin, and on Horse Butte west of the park, support having Yellowstone bison on their property. As a judge recently noted, when ruling against anti-bison forces in Montana’s Park County, living in Montana comes with a certain recognition that wildlife comes with the territory.

It’s obvious that neither Brenden nor Vincent care that such foolishness makes Montana a national laughingstock. It’s also clear that neither cares that the majority of Montanans favor free-roaming bison on appropriate landscapes.

At best, Brenden is simply coveting grass for his cattle constituents. At worst, his bill is thinly veiled racism — the suggestion being that the tribes at Fort Peck and Fort Belknap can’t manage their bison.

GYC will join thousands of other Montanans who support wild Yellowstone bison in an effort to beat back these bills. They are bad for bison and bad for Montana.

Here in the Northern Rockies, we watch the state Legislatures of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming with bemusement, often wondering which will take the lead in the race to create the nuttiest legislation.

So far, thanks in great part to these bad Yellowstone bison bills, it’s Montana in a runaway.

‘The world goes on’

A festive 40 minutes has now briefly turned somber. On a film screen in the darkened bunkhouse at Yellowstone National Park’s Buffalo Ranch, a lone gray wolf with fierce green eyes and a GPS collar howls — seemingly at the 25 viewers watching in pin-drop silence.

It is the ’06 female of the Lamar Canyon Pack, perhaps the most watched, photographed and filmed wolf since the species’ restoration to Yellowstone in 1995. In the back of the room, filmmaker Bob Landis gathers himself.

“This is the last shot of her,” he says, his voice beginning to quaver. “Not long after this she was killed, not by another wolf but by a hunter.”

He looks down and shakes his head slowly.

“The only day,” he added softly, “she left the park.”

In several decades, Landis has witnessed first-hand both the wonder and cruelty of Yellowstone while capturing it all on film with Emmy Award-winning images. Wolves kill elk and coyotes, and they kill each other. Bison drown in boggy ponds. Grizzly bears clutch elk calves in their jaws. Famous wolves die.

Landis understands the laws of nature, but him and so many others who make a living or adventure out of watching wolves, this was different.

The changing landscape for wolves in Yellowstone was a lament heard repeatedly on Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s wildlife watching trip earlier this week. Businesses reliant on wolf viewing are anxious, photographers wonder when or if they’ll get another shot, tourists’ sense that the wolves they’ve been watching are somehow in a sanctuary has been shaken.

The present reality harkened me back to a feature story I wrote on YNP wolf interpreter Rick McIntyre for Montana Quarterly magazine in 2006. I asked him why he’s out there literally every day — since 1998 now, except for the funeral of his mother.

“Because you never know which day will be the last one we see wolves,” he said.

At the time, he said it because of the possibility that wolves might disperse into the backcountry. As it turned out, humans have seen wolves in Yellowstone for more than 4,000 consecutive days, thanks largely to radio telemetry and those collars. There have been some close calls, McIntyre says, but the streak remains.

Now, they wonder — and hope Montana, Wyoming and Idaho will adopt new hunting regulations that will give Yellowstone wolves some breathing room. They are, after all, especially vulnerable, given their habituation to people.

It is especially important now that an equilibrium, of sorts, has been reached in Yellowstone. From a high of 172 wolves in the park a few years ago, now there are fewer than 80. Much of that is due to the decrease in the number of elk, which nearly everyone concedes were wildly over-populated until the wolf’s return. Fewer elk means fewer wolves.

“It’ll never be the same,” Landis said.

The images on the screen change. Now it is a collection of black and gray wolves, frolicking in the Lamar Valley. They are the offspring of 832F.

Landis is once again reminded of the marvelous conservation success story that is wolves, and that they’ll continue to live on in Yellowstone.

“Her legacy lives on through them,” he says, and then the screen fades to an incomparable Yellowstone sunset and a cacophony of howling heard only here.

Day 2 in the American Serengeti

Who says lightning doesn’t strike twice? On a postcard-perfect Wednesday morning, with fingers of pink reaching from behind the towering Absaroka Range to the east, we retraced our route to Slough Creek, where a day earlier we saw the nine members of the new Junction Butte wolf pack frolicking in the snow.

This time upon arrival we were greeted by Yellowstone National Park wolf interpreter Rick McIntyre and fellow guide Doug McLaughlin. Their scopes already were trained on the same carcass we watched wolves scavenge on Tuesday.

Sure enough, the entire group was back, by now fat and sassy and romping on a little hill just above the kill.

Truth be known, seeing the Junction Butte crew a second consecutive day was no fluke. Wolves typically need about two days on a carcass before turning the cleanup over to ravens, eagles, coyotes and other benefactors until all that’s left is a few bones soon to be bleached under the summer sun.

Our 17 guests on the GYC wildlife-watching trip based at the Buffalo Ranch were no less thrilled than on their first sighting a day earlier. The black and gray wolves were vivid under an increasingly bright sky. And they were friskier.

Wednesday’s bonus was a brief talk from McIntyre, who is always generous with GYC supporters. Wearing his Park Service uniform, he gathered the group in a semi-circle and gave us the history of the Junction Butte Pack, dating to the restoration of wolves to Yellowstone starting with an acclimation pen across the road in the Crystal Creek area of Little America.

McIntyre also was asked about the status of wolves and wolf research in Yellowstone — especially in the wake of the loss of the famed 832F, killed legally by a hunter in Wyoming on Dec. 6. “It was tough,” he said of a wolf he’d viewed regularly for six years, though he further noted that “the world goes on” and that 832F’s legacy lives on through other members of the Lamar Canyon Pack.

McIntyre is an even-keeled sort with a dry sense of humor, even jokingly comparing the battles between wolf packs with the competition between conservation groups. But even he gets a bit misty-eyed when he remembers the wolf known only as “21″, a powerful Alpha male of the Druid Pack that once mentored for weeks a sickly pup cast out by its brothers and sisters.

By 10 a.m., Yellowstone wolves typically lay down for the afternoon, especially on scorching 10-degree mornings like Wednesday. We boarded the bus and headed east, stopping at the confluence of the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek to watch two bighorn rams with magnificent curls being observed at close range by a golden eagle.

“You don’t this close to a golden eagle,” Yellowstone Association guide Brad Bulin said, urging measured movement as we departed the bus.

The sightings came on the heels of learning that Yellowstone’s wolf numbers are officially down into the 70s. For a group of 17 GYC guests from all over the country, seeing nine was a thrill they won’t forget.

A modest thank you

Managing wildlife can be a thankless job.

All most of them ever wanted was to be outside and immerse themselves in the wonders of the natural world.

Instead, they’re battered from the right and they’re battered from the left. Their science is questioned by everyone from politicians to hunters to conservationists to other biologists.

So when a note of praise is due, we ought to be the first in line to say “thanks.”

Case in point: The State of Montana’s decision to ban wolf trapping and hunting in some areas adjacent to Yellowstone National Park. It was a modest step in the right direction that merits kudos.

The Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission didn’t have to back off trapping regulations set to begin Dec. 15. It didn’t have to halt hunting given that quotas hadn’t been met.

Politically, especially with two anti-wolf bills already promised during a super-charged Legislature set to start in January, it might’ve been easier to retain the status quo.

Instead, four of five commissioners looked at the science and did the right thing.

They recognized that Yellowstone wolves are more vulnerable than others in the state. They saw that the wolf population around Yellowstone has stabilized and that livestock depradation has been minimal. They acknowledged the research value of wolves collared by the Yellowstone Wolf Project.

Perhaps they even heard the outcry of thousands of Americans who asked only that Yellowstone wolves merit a higher standard of protections.

Prohibiting trapping and hunting adjacent to Yellowstone won’t prevent the loss of park wolves in the future. Neither would the creation of a so-called “buffer zone” that some have called for; certainly it wouldn’t have saved the famous 832F of the Lamar Canyon Pack, which was killed legally by a hunter some 16-18 miles outside the park in Wyoming.

What Montana’s laudable decision does is help ensure that the state’s wolf population objectives aren’t met on the backs of Yellowstone wolves.

We didn’t get everything we asked for — we hoped FWP would extend the region farther west, in areas around West Yellowstone — but we give the State of Montana credit for listening, and taking important steps when it could’ve remained steadfast.

For that, GYC and the millions of people who support an ecologically balanced and healthy Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem say “thanks.”

Threading a needle

The death of Yellowstone wolf 832F — a.k.a. “Oh-Six” for the year she was born — triggered a surge of worldwide attention, thanks to a blog and news story in the New York Times by Nate Schweber.

Two newspapers in London carried full-length accounts. National Public Radio devoted a story on “Here And Now” and a panel session on Warren Olney’s “To The Point”. Reporters from a variety of corners of the country called the Greater Yellowstone Coalition for perspective. The wolf story was the fifth most-read piece in the Sunday Times and the second most-shared on the newspaper’s Facebook page, behind Maureen Dowd’s column.

The uproar over the loss of one of the three most photographed and viewed wolves since restoration in 1995 epitomized how we at GYC often must dance on the head of a pin when it comes to public comment.

On the one hand, we are a science-based advocacy organization that strives to look at the bigger picture of wolf management. As such, it would be dishonest to join the furor over the legal hunting of 832F and the other seven collared Yellowstone wolves shot, also legally, outside the park boundaries.

Though certainly important to the region’s economy as well as park research, biologically their loss is insignificant in the context of the overall story of wolf restoration, which is a fantastic success by any measure. More than 1,700 wolves now roam the Northern Rockies, exceeding all hopes and expectations. They are here to stay.

On the other hand, to deny the emotional imprint these wolves have made on hundreds of thousands of people from around the world would be equally dishonest. For 17 years, Yellowstone wolves have been a symbol of something we’ve lost — a fundamental connectedness to the land that’s disappearing rapidly amid a numbing haze of electronics, asphalt and strip malls.

The same passion that brings these wolf watchers also drives the people who support GYC, and those of us who work for this organization.

That awkward, sometimes-uncomfortable dance is reflected by our public communications, or even lack thereof.

Again, as a science-based organization we don’t want to unnecessarily inflame the issue by overstating the loss of 10 wolves, no matter how well known. After all, nearly 2,000 wolves have been removed for livestock predation in the past 17 years even under Endangered Species protections, and the populations have nevertheless flourished.

Furthermore, one of the aforementioned three famous Yellowstone wolves, No. 302, a.k.a., Casanova, was killed naturally by another wolf. Death is part of the life cycle in the beautiful and sometimes-cruel world of Yellowstone.

That said, as the sole organization dedicated to issues in Greater Yellowstone, our members, supporters and the general public wants and expects to hear from us when a story this big unfolds on a worldwide stage. In addition, for GYC to remain a calm and science-based leader on all things Greater Yellowstone, was must rely on financial support from the very individuals who are passionate about this place and its charismatic animals.

As such, we used the sudden attention on wolves to help advance a biologically supported change in Montana’s hunting laws — banning trapping and hunting in areas adjacent to the park. We also asked our members to financially support us in our ongoing efforts to deliver such messages.

Happily, the State of Montana listened to its constituents and made a modest step in the right direction on the hunting and trapping issue. And our supporters stepped forward, both with communications to the state and with funds to help us continue our efforts on behalf of this magnificent place.

In doing so, we made every effort to dance on the head of that pin.

We hope you’ll let us know how we did.

A fed elk is a dead bear

Grizzly-bear-Graetz3-274x350So now a grizzly bear is dead in Grand Teton National Park, as far as we know the first ever to be the victim of a hunter’s bullet inside a national park in modern times.

How this happened — and could happen again — is a simple game of connecting the dots.

Let’s start at the end:

The expanding grizzly bear population is increasingly moving onto the sage plains and into the Snake River corridor within Grand Teton, in theory a place of sanctuary.

Meanwhile, each autumn hunters begin crisscrossing these very same plains and riparian areas as part of an outdated annual rite unique to Grand Teton — the so-called “elk-reduction hunt” designed to thin a badly inflated Jackson Hole herd.

Which brings us to the first dot: The neighboring National Elk Refuge.

Each winter for the past 100 years, elk have been fed hay and, later, alfalfa pellets in a rite born from good intentions but is now a disaster in waiting. The annual buffet brings hungry elk in fantastic numbers — sometimes more than 7,000 — to the tight quarters where they’re fed just north of Jackson, Wyo.

The feed lines also ensure that a high percentage of elk survive the winter, beyond what Mother Nature normally concedes.

The consequences are many: A high prevalence of disease, a ravaged landscape, and 100-year-old willows nibbled to the nub along Flat Creek.

And now, a dead grizzly bear inside Grand Teton National Park.

See, because of the unnaturally high numbers of the ungulate, Grand Teton had little choice but to impose the elk-reduction hunts since the park’s size was increased in 1950. Even we at GYC have reluctantly supported them, lest the damage and such diseases as brucellosis and the looming Chronic Wasting Disease become an even greater threat to free-roaming Greater Yellowstone wildlife.

While the Grand Teton hunt has gradually faded in popularity among hunters, many who do still ply the landscape typically are successful. Exhibit A: the remnant gut piles that attract grizzly bears, likely in greater numbers than ever.

Indeed, at the time the male grizzly was shot, five were known to be in the area near Schwabacher’s Landing on the Snake River. Imagine the outcry if one had been the enormously popular 399 or 610, perhaps the most photographed grizzlies in American history.

Such a specter is inevitable if hunting continues in Grand Teton, a concept that most Americans likely would find untenable in the first place.

Clearly it is time to take concrete steps toward a hastened phasing out of the elk and bison feeding. This would relegate the Grand Teton elk-reduction program to its rightful place — the history books.

Such a move would save money, protect healthy wildlife and habitat, and will align with science, the law and the wishes of the American public.

The feeding and hunts both are programs whose time has come and gone.

Too close to home

It started with a Facebook message from a friend: “What is all this (BS) I hear about 7 YNP wolves shot outside the park?”

Joe hadn’t ever reacted like this about wolves — not when they were removed from Endangered Species Act protections in Idaho and Montana, not when hunting seasons began in both states, not even when Wyoming was handed management reins despite a biologically flawed plan that allows wolves to be killed any time, anywhere and any way in more than 80 percent of the state.

Now he was incensed, like many others who’d spent memorable outings watching some of the very wolves he now feared dead.

Stay tuned for confirmation, I cautioned. Sure enough, seven wolves dead. Two were “dispersers” that hadn’t spent much time in the park of late, but three were from packs synonymous with the Yellowstone wolf mystique — the Mollies, Blacktail Plateau and Lamar Canyon.

An emotion stirred in me unlike any since the restoration of wolves to Yellowstone in 1995 after a seven-decade absence.

Now, I have long maintained that wolves are neither demons nor deities. Irrational assertions from the feverish anti- and pro-wolf crowds have only inflamed emotions over a creature that simply plays a vital role in a healthy ecology — and, as it turns out, economy.

All the bluster about wolves being exotic, over-sized, parasite-ridden wanton killers that have wiped out half the livestock and elk populations of the Northern Rockies is no more or less ridiculous than suggestions that anyone who wishes to hunt a wolf should have their guns impounded, be imprisoned, or worse.

Further, I understood that even with Endangered Species Act protections many wolves from this new “non-essential experimental” population would necessarily perish due to livestock predation, as nearly 2,000 have from government bullets since 1995. I also recognized that hunting is a tool to help maintain balance among wildlife populations, including wolves.

Even those wolves largely confined to Yellowstone I readily acknowledged as wild animals in a wild world fraught with peril.

They would starve. They would contract lethal diseases. They would die from the thrash of an elk hoof, the swat of a grizzly bear paw, or in the clenched jaws of another turf-hungry wolf.

At the same time, for 17 years tens of thousands of people have come to Yellowstone solely for the privilege of viewing a wolf in the wild. Never could they envision any of the 88 wolves roaming the park today as victims of high-powered rifles.

Yellowstone, at least, seemed a safe zone for a select group of packs. Now that image is shattered.

The issue now is how to limit similar tales that elicit the outcry we’re seeing today. Montana has an opportunity to show leadership and avoid the international black eye that’s sure to follow if more Yellowstone wolves die.

First and foremost is reversing course on proposed wolf trapping — a practice neither Wyoming nor Idaho allows in Greater Yellowstone — in areas adjacent to Yellowstone. Further, Montana should consider reducing wolf quotas or eliminating hunts altogether in units surrounding the park.

After all, Yellowstone-area wolf populations have stabilized. Livestock predation has been negligible or, in the case of Gallatin County, non-existent. Montana shouldn’t try to meet its population objectives on the backs of Yellowstone wolves.

Already this fall in Montana, 23 wolves have been killed with firearms near the park. The one-two punch of hunting and trapping surely will have a dramatic impact on an animal whose presence benefits the park and gateway communities to the direct tune of $35.5 million annually.

Some contend that wolves are wolves, and that these Yellowstone animals are no different than any of the 1,600 others in the Northern Rockies. They also say the loss of a handful of Yellowstone wolves won’t impact the overall population. Other wolves will be collared, viewing will continue, and research will carry on.

They miss the point. These weren’t just any wolves.

Just ask my Facebook friend Joe and the 3 1/2 million other folks who visit Yellowstone very year.

Onward

Now that the elections are over, and we’re still a full week to 10 days from the onset of the 2016 presidential campaign, what do the results mean for Greater Yellowstone?

For one, our mailboxes no longer sag under the physical and psychological weight of tons of ominous postcards predicting certain doom should the evil, greedy, corrupt, America-hating bad guy on the other side win. The number of trees that perished in the name democracy — especially in Montana’s race for a Senate seat — could’ve reforested Sweden.

It’s also potentially good news for the lands, waters, wildlife and quality of life in Montana.

The re-election of Montana Sen. Jon Tester means his made-in-Montana Forest Jobs & Recreation Act has an excellent chance to become law.

FJRA will add more than 670,000 acres of wilderness in western Montana, the state’s first in more than 30 years. It’ll also protect recreation areas in the so-called High Divide, put folks back to work in the woods, preserve Montana’s outdoor recreation and help provide a Park-to-Park connector for wildlife moving between Greater Yellowstone and the Crown of the Continent region around Glacier National Park.

In short, a win-win-win deal.

Montana’s new face in the House of Representatives, Steve Daines, hasn’t said publicly where he stands on FJRA. But in a recent interview on Montana Public Radio the Bozeman native spoke fondly of childhood days spent in the wilderness.

Already, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle newspaper is encouraging Daines to work across party lines to get FJRA passed.

FJRA’s made-in-Montana approach is cut from a cloth similar to the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, another innovative approach that could provide unique protections for a part of the state’s wild legacy.

The RMF Heritage Act and FJRA provide a template for yet another opportunity going forward in Greater Yellowstone: Permanent wilderness protections for a vital part of the Gallatin Range between Bozeman and Yellowstone National Park.

This landscape, critical for dispersal of such iconic Yellowstone wildlife as elk, grizzly bears, wolves, elk, wolverine and pika, represents the last significant unroaded area adjacent to the park still without permanent wilderness protections.

Momentum has been building in recent years in support for such protections. The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, now led in Congress by Sen. Max Baucus, and FJRA, championed by Tester, could provide the blueprint for a similar effort soon on the Gallatin Range.

Already a wide variety of interests have come together to move this effort ahead.

Stay tuned: The next 12 months could be very fruitful for two of southwest Montana’s most important landscapes.

Heck of a job, Brownie!

Newsflash: Fox given award for meritorious stewardship of hen house.

In the land of You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, the national Bureau of Land Management office has decided that its own Idaho Minerals Branch has done a swell job of overseeing the two-headed trout district of southwest Greater Yellowstone. They’ve given the regional BLM crew an award for — deep breath here — “land stewardship in regulating open pit mining in southeastern Idaho.”

And why not? Next thing you know somebody will be giving Michael Brown an award for FEMA’s quick, efficient and thorough work in the aftermath of Katrina.

Lest anyone forget, this is the same BLM staff that has permitted mine after mine after mine in southeast Idaho, to the tune of 17 federal Superfund sites. These toxic scars have given us the infamous two-headed and countless dead wildlife and livestock, including 95 domestic sheep just a few weeks ago.

Here’s how outstanding the BLM’s stewardship has been: A court recently agreed with a phosphate mining company’s argument that the agency should share in the cost of Superfund cleanup. After all, they gave the go-ahead for a permit.

On the one hand, it’s like blaming a friend for your drunken highway accident because he loaned you the car. One the other hand, he did give you the keys knowing you’ve been drinking.

So it is with the permitting of phosphate mines. Selenium poisoning of the region’s waters and vegetation has proven as inevitable as death, taxes and campfire smoke following you around the pit.

Oh, and guess who will pay one-third of costs ending up in the hundreds of millions of dollars?

Yep, you and I. So much for accountability.

It’s just one more reason why GYC has tirelessly tried to insist that the phosphate mining industry do it right, and clean up its messes afterward. The task is daunting. The phosphate mining industry is powerful in Idaho, its monies deep in the pockets of politicians — hence the 400,000-acre southeast Idaho industrial sacrifice zone in the state’s so-called Roadless Rule (which we’re challenging).

But we’ll keep trying because it’s the right thing to do, for current and future generations of southeast Idahoans and those who live downstream.

We’re frankly not surprised that the industry-friendly BLM in southeast Idaho has played the role of fox guarding the hen house. We just never imagined that they’d be so richly rewarded for the carnage once they got inside.

Explaining the unexplainable

I’m trying to put myself in the head of the person who shot three moose near West Yellowstone and left them to rot. I suppose I should be gratified that I can’t.
You have to wonder how wounded a soul must be for a person to happen upon a family of moose and make the conscious decision to open fire not once, not twice, but three times — assuming three shots put them down.

If it had been wolves or grizzly bears, I’d get it. The act would be no less despicable and callous, but at least there’s a feeble explanation. Irrational hatred of wolves. Irrational fear of bears.

Moose? Who doesn’t like moose? Indeed%2