BILLINGS – Montana wildlife commissioners on Monday closed down the gray wolf season in some areas outside Yellowstone National Park after several collared animals used for scientific research were shot in recent weeks.
The closures prohibit hunting and trapping for the predators and include areas north of the park around the town of Gardiner.
But Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission chairman Bob Ream indicated the closures are not meant to be permanent. He said commissioners were acting to address the “particular and unique situation” of collared wolves being shot.
“It seems to be kind of a compromise,” Ream said. “Is it political? Yeah, wolves are political.”
The closures were approved on a 4-1 vote. Commissioner Dan Vermillion of Livingston cast the lone dissenting vote.
Conservation groups had lobbied for the restrictions after park officials said at least seven Yellowstone wolves – including five wearing tracking collars – were shot in recent weeks by hunters in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
Saturday marks the opening day of Montana’s first wolf trapping season since the animals lost federal protections last year.
Wolf hunting has been under way in Montana for more than two months. Wildlife officials said Monday that the statewide harvest was down 18 percent this year compared to the same point in 2011.
In opposing the closures, Vermillion said there was no evidence the harvest was damaging the species’ long-term viability.
State officials lifted quotas on wolves across most of Montana this year in hopes of decreasing a predator population blamed for livestock attacks and driving down elk numbers in some areas.
Advocacy groups had sought a permanent buffer zone around the park. They said that was needed to protect a species that serves as a major draw for Yellowstone’s 3 million visitors annually.
“The 2012 hunt has been a disaster for southwest Montana’s tourism industry,” said Ilona Popper with the Bear Creek Council in Gardiner. “The way this hunt is going, it looks like Fish, Wildlife and Parks is trying to and succeeding in lowering the numbers of wolves in Yellowstone and not on ranch land.”
Hunting and trapping are prohibited inside park boundaries, but wolves range freely across that line.
Shooting a collared wolf is legal if done within a state’s hunting regulations.
Radio collars on wolves are used to track the animals’ movement, often for research. They also are used outside the park to track down and kill the predators following livestock attacks.