Hunters Killing Gray Wolves After They Leave Yellowstone at Rapid Rate, Entire Pack Dead

Twenty of Yellowstone National Park's gray wolves have been killed by hunters after leaving park property, the most park officials say have died during a single hunting season since they were reintroduced to the region more than 25 years ago.

Park officials stated they consider the Phantom Lake Pack "eliminated" after most or all of its members were killed during a two-month span beginning in October, and is a setback for the species' long-term viability and wolf research.

According to figures released to The Associated Press, fifteen wolves were shot after roaming across the park's northern border into Montana. Five more died in Idaho and Wyoming.

Hunting is prohibited in Yellowstone, where it is estimated 94 wolves live. However, with months left in Montana's wolf hunting season and wolf trapping season just getting started, park officials said they expect more wolves will die after leaving Yellowstone.

Park Superintendent Cam Sholly previously raised concerns regarding the diminishing wolf population, advocating for more hunting restrictions near the park's border last September, and recently urged Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte to shut down hunting and trapping in the area.

According to a Dec. 16 letter obtained by the AP, Sholly cited "the extraordinary number of Yellowstone wolves already killed this hunting season." Still, Gianforte, an avid hunter and trapper, did not address the request to halt hunting season.

The governor said Montana protects against overhunting through rules adopted by the wildlife commission, which can review hunting seasons if harvest levels top a certain threshold.

For southwestern Montana, including areas bordering Yellowstone Park, the limit is 82 wolves. According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, sixty-three wolves have been killed in that region in the current season, and 149 wolves statewide.

Last year, Gianforte —who failed to take a mandatory trapper course— received a warning from a Montana game warden after trapping and shooting a radio-collared wolf about 10 miles north of the park.

Wolf trapping in the Montana area opened on Dec. 21, with the most recent killing on New Year's Day. Under new rules, Montana trappers can now night hunt and use animal carcasses or other bait to lure wolves into traps and snares.

"Allowances for trapping and especially baiting are a major concern, especially if these tactics lure wolves out of the park," said Morgan Warthin, a public affairs specialist for Yellowstone.

Yellowstone gray wolf
Since hunting season opened in Montana, 63 wolves have been killed. Gray wolf running inside special acclimation pen, member of pack to be released into Lamar Valley wild in Idaho, Montana & Wyoming wolf reintroduction program at Yellowstone Natl. Park. William F. Campbell/Getty Images

Last year, Montana wildlife officials loosened hunting and trapping rules for wolves statewide and eliminated longstanding wolf quota limits in areas bordering the park after being urged by Republican lawmakers. The quotas allowed only a few wolves to be killed along the border annually.

The original quotas were aimed at protecting packs that can be spotted in the wild, as they draw tourists to the region from across the world.

Montana's recent efforts, which make it easier to kill wolves, mirrors recent actions by conservative officials in other states such as Idaho and Wisconsin.

The changes came after hunters and ranchers successfully lobbied for measures to reduce wolf populations that prey on big game herds and occasionally on livestock.

But the states' increased aggression toward the predators raises concerns among federal wildlife officials. In September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it would examine if federal endangered species protections should be restored for wolves in northern U.S. Rockies states including Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

Wolf protection was lifted a decade ago based on assurances that states would maintain viable wolf populations.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.