The Spitfire Incident and Wolf Hunting in the American West: A more complicated problem than meets the eye

For the past few months, there has been a huge debate over the issue of wolf hunting. While not a new issue, the argument was recently reignited when Spitfire, a notably popular wolf among wildlife watchers and the daughter of another famous wolf 832Fwas shot and killed by a hunter outside of Yellowstone National Park. Pro-hunting groups are quick to support the hunter, while environmental groups are quick to vilify the hunting of wolves. But is there more to this argument? Some of the largest proponents for wolf protection have called out the need for a buffer zone around protected areas like Yellowstone, while pro-hunting organizations are primarily focused on protecting the rights and liberties of the American hunter. Today I want to dive a bit into the history of this issue, highlight the major arguments from both sides of the debate, and offer some insight based on my own personal opinion and experience. So let’s dive into it.

History of Wolves and Wolf Hunting in the American West

For this article, I am going to primarily focus on wolves and wolf hunting around Yellowstone National Park. Although wolves used to be widespread throughout the United States, their current range is primarily focused around Yellowstone, Michigan and Wisconsin, Alaska and reintroduced populations of Mexican Grey Wolves in New Mexico and Arizona. As of April 2017, there are around 5,700 wolves in the continental United States and around 7,700-11,200 wolves in Alaska.

Yellowstone National Park is the site of perhaps the most famous case of wolf re-introduction. From 1872-1926, Wolves were hunted to extinction. For 70 years, the park’s ecosystem operated without a pivotal keystone species. A direct cause of this eradication was the drastic increase of Elk populations.

Image result for elk pictures

While the hunters, elk watchers, and, of course, the Elk were happy with this change, the ecosystem simply was not. The large population of Elk caused a massive decline in new plant growth as the Elk ate young saplings and shrubs at an enormous rate. As a result, the whole ecosystem began to decline. While I could list every negative effect that occurred, this fantastic video, narrated by George Monbiot, really highlights the effects of the removal, and the reintroduction, of the wolf populations in Yellowstone.

Following the Endangered Species Act passing in 1973, all wolf subspecies were listed on the federal list for endangered species by 1978, which required efforts to facilitate their recovery. In 1995, 8 Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone from Canada. Their effect on the local ecosystem was profound and led to several very charismatic wolves becoming icons of the role of predators in an ecosystem. Through 2008-2012, Wolves were delisted in the states surrounding Yellowstone, allowing state agencies to regulate the species as they see fit. This includes regulating hunting.

The Spitfire Incident

In late November 2018, Wolf number 926F was shot and killed by a hunter in Montana; just outside the border of Yellowstone. This individual, affectionately known as Spitfire by wolf watchers, was a frequent sighting along touristed roads in the Lamar Valley. According to Montana hunting regulations, the hunter was within his legal rights to shoot Spitfire.

Image result for spitfire wolf
Picture of Spitfire, the wolf shot and killed in November 2018

The controversy surrounding this act is complex, to say the least. Aside from the fact that Spitfire was an enigmatic wolf shot and killed just outside the park’s border, she was also a daughter of another legendary wolf: ’06. In 2009, Wolf ’06 (832F to researchers) became a favorite amongst wolf watchers as she was a solo wolf with a ton of character. After wandering into the park, reports show that she was able to regularly take down elk 5-6 times her size by herself, had bred with a large number of males in the park and was spotted often by tourists in the park. In 2012, the same year wolf hunting around Yellowstone was allowed, ’06 roamed outside of Yellowstone and was shot (legally) by a hunter.

So not only was Spitfire an extremely well-known wolf, she succumbed to the exact same fate as her mother. While the controversy surrounding wolf hunting has been reignited several times, these two incidents prompted a massive response through social media and news outlets, and have caused arguments surrounding every involved member.

Why is there no Buffer Zone?

A common question asked by proponents for wolf protection is “Why is there no buffer zone around Yellowstone?”. The argument accounts for the fact that wolves, and other animals for that matter, don’t recognize park boundaries as safe havens. Additionally,  wolves maintain territories ranging from 50-1,000 square miles and they can roam up to 30 miles in a single day. For reference, Yellowstone constitutes an area of nearly 3,500 square miles and, as of 2016, contains 11 wolf packs totaling 108 wolves. Pictured below is a map showing Yellowstone and all the wolf packs currently radio-tagged in the park.


2016 Wolf Pack Map - NPS Image
Yellowstone Wolf Packs. Red lines denote roads, while the dark black lines show the park boundaries. Montana is to the North, Wyoming to the East and South, and Idaho to the West. Notice how the vast majority of the ranges are either near the boundaries or even crossing them.


What is important to note here is that Montana (to the north) is not only where the majority of the wolf packs reside, but also where both of these famous wolves (Spitfire and her mother ’06) were shot and killed. Currently, there is no buffer zone around the park for the state of Montana. But why is that? Even if wolves aren’t protected at the federal level by the Endangered Species Act, don’t you think the State Fish and Wildlife Service would want to try and protect the wolves?

Well, they’ve tried to. In late 2012, 7 wolves were shot and killed by legal hunting over the span of several weeks. 5 of those wolves were actually research wolves and had radio collars attached to them to track their movements. Once the Montana Wildlife Commision (the governmental organization who manages the protection, hunting and any other regulations regarding wolves) heard of this news, they immediately suspended the hunting season while they tried to sort through the situation.

However, this led to retaliation from the Montana legislature. The reopened the hunting season immediately and in early 2013, the Montana House passed amendments to House Bill 73 that restricted the rights of Montana Wildlife Commission to regulate wolf hunting. Montana House Bill 73 Chapter 13 amended sections 87-1-304, 87-2-104, 87-2-523, 87-2-524, 87-6-401, and 87-6-414.

Heres an executive summary of the changes made the legislature:

…(7) In an area immediately adjacent to a national park, the commission may
(a) prohibit the hunting or trapping of wolves; or
(b) close the area to wolf hunting or trapping unless a wolf harvest quota
established by the commission for that area has been met.”…

Hunters are required to wear Hunter Orange vests…(2) As used in this section, “hunter orange” means a daylight fluorescent
orange color.
(3) This section does not apply to a person hunting:

(b) wolves outside the general deer and elk season as authorized by
commission rules.

“87-2-524. Class E-2—nonresident wolf license. (1) Except as otherwise
provided in this chapter, a person who is not a resident, as defined in 87-2-102,
but who is 12 years of age or older or who will turn 12 years old before or during
the season for which the license is issued, upon payment of a fee of $350 $50

In essence, the commision cannot close the wolf hunting season unless a quota has been reached or institute a buffer zone, hunters no longer have to wear bright orange vests to hunt wolves outside of deer and elk season, and they decreased the fee for a wolf license from $350 down to $50. Some of the pros from these changes include banning the use of electronic call devices to attract wolves and instituting a 24 hour waiting period from the purchase of a license to its legal use.

These changes are incredibly egregious and severely limit the power of the wildlife commision to do their job: protecting the wolves. Under the current statutes, the Montana Wildlife Commision cannot create a buffer zone around Yellowstone even if they wanted to.

Why don’t we ban hunting of wolves?

Anytime there is a high profile case revolving around trophy hunting, this question is blasted all over the news, social media sites, and between conservation organizations. And it’s a great question to ask. After all, we are trying to conserve and protect imperiled species. Hunting directly takes animals away from the ecosystem in which they live, thus decreasing the total number of individuals. There is a ton of debate surrounding trophy hunting, and what it ultimately boils down to is “Do the ends justify the means?”

Image result for cecil the lion
In 2015, Cecil the Lion (pictured here) was shot and killed by a trophy hunter

For this argument, I want to divorce ourselves from the emotional element of this debate. Yes, we should consider our personal moral beliefs for when we decide to either kill or not kill any animal, but this is not what this section is about. From the side of hunters, there is an emotional aspect of tracking, hunting, and taking the life of an animal. It is incredibly emotional, intimate, and has great importance towards their view of the land and their heritage. From the corner of anti-hunters, there is the empathy dedicated towards another living being, a moral opposition towards killing any individual to save a species, and the general sense of brutality towards the killing of animals. While I truly believe most passionate hunters and anti-hunters agree on many ideals, such as that hunting without a deep to connection to the land and understanding of the animal, (like most canned hunting) is not hunting but senseless killing, I’m not going to dive into this debate in this article. If you want to read more about this distinction, I recommend these articles, videos, and documentaries:

What is a true hunter?
Real hunters don’t shoot for fun
Hunting ethics every new hunter should know
Netflix documentary: Trophy
Sand County Almanac: Aldo Leopold (Definite must read)

From here on, I will be purely discussing the facts surrounding trophy hunting, if it helps or hinders conservation efforts, and how it specifically relates to wolf conservation.

Image result for gray wolf trophy
Does hunting help or hinder Grey Wolf conservation?

There’s a really fantastic article from National Geographic that presents a ton of arguments from all sides of trophy hunting in Africa. One of the main arguments supporting trophy hunting is that it provides a large amount of money towards conservation efforts. Currently, up to 60% of state wildlife funds come from hunting and taxation of supplies, licensing, and access to hunting areas. Although wildlife viewing and related activities (hiking, birding, horseback riding) have been on the rise over the past few decades and provide a fair chunk of money towards conservation, these activities alone do not provide a large enough revenue stream to protect these areas.

In 2016, the US  Fish and Wildlife Service received $75.9 Billion from wildlife viewers and $81 Billion from hunters and anglers. No matter what way you look at it, that is a substantial sum of money. And the relationship between hunter, government, and nature works for the benefit of all three.

The hunter trusts the organization managing the lands on which they hunt. The organization makes every effort to manage the land for the greatest benefit to both those who use that land (hikers, hunters, birders, campers etc.), and for all aspects of the environment. An ethical hunter who hunts in a manner that follows the rules and regulations does so with the trust that their actions directly help conserve the land and animals that they so dearly respect. If that trust is broken in any way, such as the government managing the land through personal ideology or politics as opposed to science and sound management practices, then the organization is failing its primary duty. Conversely, if the hunter is not following the set quotas, limits and seasons put in place by the management organization, then they are actively harming the ecosystem in which they are hunting.

Image result for relationship between hunting and nature
Properly managed hunting protects the lands in which they hunt

So how does this relationship factor into wolf hunting around Yellowstone?

As we mentioned earlier, the wildlife commision in Montana is blocked from completely managing wolf hunting around Yellowstone. Without the ability to create buffer zones, the power to regulate the hunting season actively, and the support of the state government, how could they possibly manage hunting in any sustainable fashion? While yes, they set the quotas each year, there is no possible way to actively manage those quotas effectively while the hunting season is in full swing. They have no power to regulate where citizens can hunt wolves outside of Yellowstone. They have no legal recourse to stop or delay a hunting season once it has begun. Ultimately, they have no ability to manage the wolf populations in the very environment that they serve.

Then the hunters shouldn’t hunt directly outside Yellowstone, right? Well, that goes back to the relationship between hunter and wildlife management organizations. It is entirely unreasonable to expect every hunter to be a complete expert on the ecology, population levels, and the individual identities of the wolves they decide to hunt. Hunters who shoot wolves illegally (within park boundaries, out of season, etc.) are always prosecuted to the full extent of the law and many of the hunters who hunt legally truly believe that their actions are helping conservation efforts.

One final thing I would like to touch on is the hunters and portion of the public who are vehemently anti-wolf. The common argument is that wolves are leading to the extinction of elk populations and that they are eating livestock.

Firstly, the elk population is much lower than it was 40 years ago. However, just like we mentioned at the top of this article, that is because of the absence of wolves in the first place. The large population of elk was destroying the local environment and needed to be curtailed through natural means. Currently, the elk population is on a decline, but that is because they are returning to sustainable levels in a healthier ecosystem as well dealing with a large drought.

Secondly, some livestock has been eaten by wolves. That is absolutely true and an unavoidable consequence of predators in proximity with ranchers. That being said, loss of livestock from predators constituted only a quarter of a percent of the total livestock loss in the US. The vast majority of loss occurs from illnesses and weather; not predators.

Final Thoughts

What has happened around this entire wolf hunting around Yellowstone debate is a complete breakdown of trust and relationship between hunter, nature, and the government. In Montana, the legislators have reduced the powers of the organization who protects the wolves. The organization cannot protect the wolves to the best of their ability and such there is an insane amount of tags being sold for wolves every year. The hunters’ individual actions are legal and many believe their actions help conservation efforts. This chain is fundamentally broken and needs massive change if we are at all going to help save the wolves in the American West.

  • Yellowstone needs a buffer zone to help preserve these wolf populations, especially one in Montana.
  • Hunters need to not be vilified by conservation organizations when they are in fact one of the major funders of conservation.
  • Wolves need to be awarded protection based on sound science and management, not politics, fear, and misunderstanding.
  • More cohesiveness between non-hunters and hunters needs to take place. Hunters are not all mindless killing machines and non-hunters are not all preservation oriented hippies.

I want to end this article with one of my favorite quotes from Aldo Leopold, a father of U.S. conservation and an avid hunter:

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”


2 Comments on “The Spitfire Incident and Wolf Hunting in the American West: A more complicated problem than meets the eye

  1. what they killed Spitfire!! Why the people of developed Nations are stick to old animal hunting thing…as a developed nation, they should rather rise up from such silly things (silly because, now we don’t need to hunt for food and killing for fun and ego is lame excuse) moreover hunting with automatic guns or equipment is NOT bravery but impotency.

    If they want to prove their bravery then they should replace the soldiers, who are sent in other countries to protect the interests of Developed nations, like crude oil and poppies and hunt the so called terrorists, which are again the result of brain of developed nations. Stop killing Animals for FUN.

    • Hi Nick! Thats a really passionate response, and I have a few comments. I dont think that most hunters do it purely for fun, or do so to prove their bravery. There really is an intense connection to nature that occurs with many hunters and it is a more humane means to consume meat as opposed to factory farms which raise animals in inhumane conditions and destroy thousands of acres of habitat. I think that the nuances of hunting are really complex and have arguments that are valid from all sides. I am of the camp that automatic weapons shouldnt be allowed, and in fact, they arent. Automatic weapons are illegal in the U.S., especially for hunting, so not really sure where you are getting that line of information. I’m not even going to get into the comment on developed nations and poppies(?), as it is so far removed from the scope of this article.

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