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Cooke City

Piles of snow lined Main Street in Cooke City last year but snowfall and tourism has been down this winter.

Questions about whether some Cooke City residents are baiting wolves has raised the hackles of a few of the remote town’s business owners.

“I’m furious about it because I cater to all of the wildlife groups,” said Jan Gaertner, co-owner of Buns 'N' Beds restaurant and cabins in Cooke City. “That’s not what we’re about here in Cooke City.”

In the winter Cooke City is home to about only 85 to 100 hardy souls, Gaertner estimated. The town is nestled on the southern side of the Beartooth Mountains where the highway dead-ends in the winter because the snowplows go no farther.

Located just four miles from the Northeast Entrance to Yellowstone National Park at an elevation of 7,608 feet, the tourism-dependent town’s businesses rely on snowmobilers, cross country skiers, backcountry skiers and wildlife watchers between December and March.

Yellowstone wolf 926F

Wolf 926F, known to some wolf watchers as Spitfire, was killed by a Cooke City hunter in November.

Riled by killing

The recent kerfuffle began after a Cooke City hunter shot a much-beloved Yellowstone National Park wolf in November, just outside the nearby town of Silver Gate. An investigation by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials concluded wolf 926F was legally shot, despite allegations to the contrary.

The backlash from the wolf’s shooting has been to call for a boycott of the Cooke City hunter’s business. He’s also reportedly received death threats. Some wolf advocates have expanded the boycott call to other regional businesses — from hunting guides to restaurants — whose owners have reportedly expressed any anti-wolf sentiments.

Then on Sunday a Billings television station aired a story, and posted it online, based on a comment by Pittsburgh-area wildlife filmmaker David Rohm. The website headline states: “Wolves habituating in Cooke City; possibly baited in by people.” The article goes on to quote Rohm saying he is “worried” that FWP officials may have been influenced in their investigation by a group of “wolf-killing locals.

"We know there's a local population, a very small population of people, that have killed wolves, and bait wolves and try and create this controversy, so that was our concern, and the residents rely on tourism dollars, let's face it," Rohm is quoted saying.

“I don’t like the fact that people think we are baiting wolves up here,” Gaertner said. “There’s been enough eyes on this place that someone would be crazy to do that.”

Soda Butte Creek

Soda Butte Creek, which flows from the mountains near Cooke City into Yellowstone National Park, is a natural migration corridor for wildlife.

Confused

When contacted by the Billings Gazette, Rohm said he doesn’t know why he’s been singled out for his comments when all he was seeking is clarification of what’s going on in the area — someone’s dog was killed by wolves a couple of weeks ago, there are wolves in the area, and why are they there since there’s no elk or other food source for them?

FWP information chief Greg Lemon said his agency investigated the dog’s death and found it was consistent with what a neighbor and the pet owner saw — two wolves fatally attacking the dog at night. The wolves ran off when the homeowner turned on an outdoor light.

The agency’s wolf specialist has set up trail cameras to ascertain why the wolves may be in the area, Lemon said. “It appears they’re in town mostly at night. They seem to be skittish during the daytime.”

FWP officials are concerned that if the wolves are frequenting developed areas more pets might be killed or the wolves might begin to associate people with food. If that happens the animals would have to be either hazed or killed.

Wildlife

Yellowstone National Park is home to a variety of wildlife, including grizzly bears. Bears are the most popular animal that tourists want to see when they visit the park.

Wild town

There are always wild visitors around Cooke City. It’s between a 937,000-acre wilderness area and Yellowstone National Park. Many animals move through the area under the cover of darkness. Wolves, grizzly bears, black bears, moose and elk have used the riparian corridor along Soda Butte Creek, which flows next to Cooke City, to walk between the park and the wilderness area, Gaertner noted.

The wildlife, beauty of the surrounding mountains and close proximity to Yellowstone are reasons many people move there or visit, she said. Once after stepping out of her car in town she heard wolves howling — not a common experience in the lower 48 states.

“We love our wildlife here,” she said.

Wolf watchers

Yellowstone visitors use long-range spotting scopes to watch wolves and their pups in and around a den near Yellowstone National Park's Slough Creek in 2016.

Wolf hunt

Yet Gaertner has no problem with wolves being legally hunted as outlined under Montana regulations. In her area that often means Yellowstone wolves are shot, animals that may have become less wary of humans because tourists visit Yellowstone by the millions each year.

Since Montana’s first wolf hunting season held in 2009, 37 wolves that spent the majority of their lives in Yellowstone were shot by hunters, Doug Smith, Yellowstone’s wolf biologist, told the Gazette in December. Eighty percent of the wolves killed were shot in two hunting districts outside the park’s boundaries in Montana.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, is being drafted for this session of the Montana Legislature that would ban hunting and trapping of wolves next to Yellowstone in Park County. Another bill being drafted would allow wolf hunting at night. It is sponsored by Rep. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls.

Wolf lovers

Wolf hunting contrasts sharply with some park wolf watchers who are so dedicated that they have names for the more visible animals and track their life stories.

A portion of the park’s tourists — estimated at around 150,000 in 2006 — come just to see wild wolves, and winter is the best time to see them as they hunt or roam along the road between Cooke City and the park’s North Entrance outside Gardiner. The road between the two towns is one of only two routes left open to automobiles inside Yellowstone in the winter.

A University of Montana study between 2004 and 2006 estimated the value of wolf watching in the park at about $35.5 million a year for Montana, Wyoming and Idaho — the three states surrounding Yellowstone. Since 2006, visitation to Yellowstone has increased by about 1.2 million people a year. The study also found that 44 percent of the park’s visitors “list wolves as one of the top three species they most would like to see on their trip (second only to grizzly bears).”

Yet some hunters, outfitters, guides and livestock owners see wolves only as a detriment to their livelihoods as they will kill livestock, pets and wildlife. Wyoming allows unregulated killing of wolves outside of the northwest corner of the state, considering them predators.

Choosing sides

Gaertner worries the rumors about wolf baiting will adversely affect what’s already a slow tourist season in Cooke City. That also may be complicated by the federal government shutdown that has left some people unwilling to visit Yellowstone National Park due to a lack of services and a less-than-normal winter snowfall, she speculated.

Rohm said he has no quarrel with FWP, the residents or business owners in Cooke City.

“I spend a lot of time and money there,” he said. “It’s a great place to visit. The people are awesome.”

But he also said, “Cooke City is going to have to decide what they want to be,” a town that caters to hunters or one that is pro wildlife watching.

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