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Loving Wolves to Death: Habituation in Yellowstone

by Taylor Bland

by Editor of Yellowstone Reports
June 9, 2020

In spring, a new generation of wolf pups start to emerge from their dens.  At the same time, Yellowstone begins to welcome visitors eager to see the park. These two factors have the potential to create a perfect storm: wolf habituation. We need to be cognizant of our actions regarding Yellowstone wildlife and what it means for them and future visitors

Habituation: What is it?

Habituation occurs when an animal has become used to the presence of humans in their natural habitat. It is very easy for animals to become habituated in Yellowstone where over 4 million visitors arrive each year, especially when those people do present as a threat, like they might more outside of the park.

History: Cases in the park

Since the wolf reintroduction in 1995, there have been only 2 wolves that have been lethally removed due to habituation. In both instances, these wolves showed signs of aggression and no fear of humans. It is common for any wildlife that have become aggressive and dangerous to be killed by rangers.  Many bears, coyotes and foxes have suffered such a fate in the park.

The first wolf that was removed was 729M from the Gibbon Meadow pack on May 19, 2009. This wolf was a yearling male who was observed chasing bicycles, and a motorcycle, and was continuously approaching people in the Biscuit Basin area.  This wolf was also seen going onto porches of park residents.  It was showing no fear of humans.  Wolf 729M was food conditioned, which is worse than simple habituation, because it indicates the animal has started associating people with food.  It happens most often when people feed the animal, often repeatedly.  Do not feed wildlife!  The wolf was shot by rangers after 2 weeks of intense monitoring and tracking near Old Faithful.  On the date of his death, the wolf weighed around 85 pounds.

The second wolf removed was a male, 812M, from the Mollie’s Pack, a famous pack that is the only pack still around from the original reintroduction. This wolf was lethally removed on October 8, 2011. Before its removal, it was hazed 7 different times without change. Hazing attempts included spraying the wolf with bear spray and hitting with paintballs on multiple occasions. The park determined that this wolf had been food conditioned, like the wolf from the Gibbon Meadow pack, and once a wolf has been food conditioned it is hard to undo. The wolf was seen harassing a man while the man yelled, and tried to scare the wolf away by swinging a stick at it.

Watch the video of this very incident:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gb7G_MvaRc&feature=youtu.be

Notice on the video how the wolf appears to follow the hand of the man as if it is expecting food to come from it.  On the day of removal, the 2-year-old wolf was about 110 pounds.

Both of these were very severe habituation cases, but not at all something that happens frequently in the park. Park managers are doing a great job of trying to de-escalate the situations when they become aware of them, and do their best to condition a wolf conversely before lethal steps become necessary.  Visitors from all over the world specifically come to Yellowstone to watch the wolf packs that live in the park—making it essential that we do our best to keep them wild and safe.

Adjusting Our Use:  Too Close for Comfort

In 2019, Wolf 969F from the Junction Butte pack had her pups near a heavily used hiking trail. This turned into a very bad situation. Many visitors found out about the pups’ location and were understandably eager to see them. Park rangers decided it would be best to close that area to the public. This preventative measure was good, but came too late, and ultimately was not effective in the long run. One ranger stated, “while patrolling the area, I saw many people trying to catch a glimpse of the pups even though they knew the area was closed. That showed me that they were more concerned about getting a sighting or good photograph than about the wolves' well-being.”

A few short months after birth, some wolf pups drew a crowd.  Visitors filled the pullouts up and down the road in the valley. As a photographer was walking back to their car, a small black pup ran up to this person’s tripod and began to show interest. The pup nudged the tripod, tipping it over and then grabbed it in its mouth before trotting away into the sage brush. The photographer followed the pup in hopes of retrieving the tripod, and when the pup turned to face the photographer, it was not deterred and crouched down in a play-bow stance. After the photographer yelled, the pup backed off, but it was clear at this point, the young wolf was habituated to people—showed no fear.  The behavior likely evolved from the many encounters with people on the trail months before.

Consequences of Habituation:  Perishing Pups 

In November 2019, 2 black pups from the Junction Butte pack were hit by a car at night on the road.  Each of the pups were examined carefully, and thought to be siblings of the one that grabbed the tripod.  Investigators ultimately presumed that the pups were died as an indirect result of habituation. Wolves rarely linger in the road where hundreds of cars travel each day.

Changing Course: What can you do?

"Be the change you want to see in the world."        ~ Ghandi

This is exactly what is needed to address these cases with habituated wolves in Yellowstone National Park, or anywhere, moving forward. While officials can work very hard to haze and aversively condition any wildlife that happen to become habituated, it may not work.  It is the job of park visitors to help keep the wolves from getting habituated in the first place. 

Here is a list of suggestions:

• Respect wolves by maintaining a 100-yard distance—if you are approached, back away

• Do not feed or approach any wolves, no photograph is worth the life of its subject

• If you have a close encounter, haze them away by yelling, clapping, throwing rocks, or using bear spray.  Retreat to a vehicle for your and their safety

• Help educate others to protect these valuable resources.  Contribute by submitting any wolf photos you may have to www.yellowstonewolf.org.  The website allows anyone to upload wolf photos taken in the park, and provides a lot of information on individual wolves and their packs

Taylor Bland is local naturalist and educator currently working with Yellowstone Wolf Tracker as an interpretive guide.  She also lends her talents to the Yellowstone Wolf Project to do research and management of the park's wolf packs.

Photos

692F




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