Friday, May 12, 2017

Trying to Understand the Killing of the Canyon Pack's Alpha Female

Canyon Alpha Female photo by Leo Leckie
The death by poaching of the Canyon pack’s alpha female angers and saddens me. In the few weeks before she was shot, the white wolf was spotted twice walking alone at night down a main street of Gardiner, bothering no one, heading north. After the first sighting, an informal network of locals formed to try and find the alpha female, watch her movements, and make sure no harm came to her. We spent hours hiking and driving just north of Gardiner. We kept each other informed via text, email, phone, and talking along the roadside. My friend Leo and I were lucky enough to see her early one morning, unharmed and moving through the sage just north of town, not far from where she was found shot a couple of weeks later.

That so many people immediately came together to try and protect a wolf that had stepped out of Yellowstone, speaks highly of Gardiner residents. Unfortunately there are other people who want to see wolves dead. This time the killers succeeded. Was the shooter a local? Someone from elsewhere? No one knows.

Gardiner, located at Yellowstone’s north gate, sits at the center of a wolf controversy. The town is bordered by two Wolf Management Units of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MFWP). Wolves that step paw outside the park can be legally shot in those units during wolf hunting season. (When the Canyon alpha female was shot, wolf hunting season had long since closed. And her body was found inside Yellowstone, not in one of the hunting units.) 

Some time ago, Leo, my wife Mary, and I attended a public meeting in which MFWP staff came to Gardiner to hear comments on the wolf quota in those units bordering Yellowstone. Should the number of wolves killed be higher, lower, or the same? Though MFWP may have wanted a number, they heard much more. They heard the range of local opinion about wolves.

After learning of the poaching of the Canyon alpha female, I found myself thinking again and again of that meeting and the thoughts and feelings revealed there about wolves. Thoughts and feelings that I’m sure are echoed across the US. Thoughts and feelings that may help to understand the white alpha’s death.

The Meeting

We are in the multipurpose room of Gardiner’s K-12 school. Three long rows of cafeteria tables are set up for the public, with about thirty people seated at them. Most of the people in the front and middle rows want to see fewer wolves killed. Many are locals, some are wolf watchers from elsewhere. In the back row sit a smaller number of people, most want to see more wolves killed in the unit.

Sam Sheppard, regional MFWP supervisor, greets us and asks that we be respectful of each others’ opinions. He explains that his staff is here to listen to our comments, not to have back-and-forth discussions with us. 

A man in the back row raises his hand and says with a hint of frustration, “So does that mean we can’t ask questions?” 

Sheppard, maintaining his even tone, tells him questions are permissible but the meeting will not be a back-and-forth between staffers and attendees. Then he opens the meeting for public comment.

photo by Leo Leckie
After a few people speak, Bonnie, a representative of the Sierra Club, stands and says, “People come [to Yellowstone] from all over the world for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a wolf in the wild, and that chance is undeniably reduced with hunting on the park borders, as we saw in a recent study.” She adds that in a recent year hunters and trappers killed more than 200 wolves in Montana.

A man in the back row stands and says he was born and raised here in Gardiner. For his entire life, his family has worked as outfitters—helping clients hunt wildlife. He believes that the tourism to see wolves in Yellowstone “should not dictate what we do with Montana wolves in the 313 area.” He seems to frame this wolf controversy as the federal government bullying the state of Montana—a position western conservatives take on many political issues.

“This is Montana,” says Sheppard, breaking his own rule on the back and forth. “This is not Yellowstone National Park North.” He explains that the park operates on a preservation model—wolves aren’t hunted in Yellowstone. But Montana uses a conservation model—wolves are hunted. 

Another man from the back row says, “If wolves stay in the park, we won’t affect them at all.”

“The fact of the matter,” replies Sheppard, “is that animals don't recognize political boundaries. This species [wolves] is linked to the elk. That is their primary grocery and they’re going to follow the groceries.”

Shauna, a Yellowstone guide in the front row, explains how the killing in a legal Wyoming wolf hunt of 06 (oh-six)—the famous alpha female of the Lamar Canyon pack—affected her income. She lost more than $2,000 in tips after that one wolf was shot. Her comment creates a buzz in the back row and generates a few minutes of back and forth between pro- and anti-wolf attendees, until Sheppard puts both hands into the air and quiets the room. “This,” he repeats, “is not going to be a back and forth.” 

From the back row, another man asks angrily, “So we can’t ask questions?”

Sheppard brings both arms across his chest and states firmly, “There is not going to be dialogue going back and forth among the audience.”

The room falls silent except for the rustle of three men in the back row, whom I assume are members of the anti-wolf congregation. They stand up, tug at their baseball caps, and march out. Watching them go, I figure they did not come to have a productive conversation; they came here to fight. They will never agree with protecting wolves. They want wolves gone. And when wolf hunting season arrives, they will make that opinion known with bullets.

After the three leave, a man who spoke before from the back row breaks the silence with a diatribe against the Sierra Club’s political influence. He sounds as if he sees this controversy as the Sierra Club overpowering the Montana commission that sets the wolf hunt quotas. 

When he finishes, Ilona, chairperson of the wolf committee of Gardiner’s all-volunteer conservation group, the Bear Creek Council, asks Sheppard, “Can we allow everyone in this room to make their first comment before we go to second comments?” 

“That’s fair enough,” says Sheppard with a nod.

Doug, a local who sells spotting scopes to wolf watchers, asks Sheppard if we can have a simple show of hands of how many people support the two-wolf quota as opposed to six.

Sheppard shakes his head and says, “I value everyone’s comments, but what I’ve found in the past is that if there is an overwhelming majority, that may silence some people.” He pauses and then adds that the staff wants “to hear what people think and have to say.”

From the back row someone yells, “Shoot the wolves!” While this prompts laughter in the back row, it draws concern from the middle and front rows. Is there any way, I wonder, to bridge such a chasm?

Linda, co-owner of a local ecotourism business, stands and says that she too suffered financially after 06 was shot. When the Lamar Canyon pack scattered, there were fewer wolf sightings, and that led to fewer wolf watchers. Her business income was off for two years. 

Mary stands and says she would like to see the quota in Unit 313 reduced to zero. I want to applaud her statement of conscience. The reality under Montana law is that there cannot be a permanent buffer zone around Yellowstone where zero wolves are taken. There can only be a quota that is subject to change. Only three small units in the state have quotas. Unit 313 and one other border Yellowstone. The third unit borders Glacier National Park. Anywhere else in Montana the combined maximum hunting and trapping bag limit was five wolves per person during the last season.

photo by Leo Leckie
After a couple more people speak, I comment. I encourage the MFWP biologists to establish a management goal that recognizes tourism and research as a priority for setting wolf quotas near Yellowstone and Glacier. This is an idea Ilona shared with me in one of our many conversations concerning wolf management.

Nathan, chairperson of the Bear Creek Council and co-owner with Linda of an ecotourism business, stands and says that he too was raised in Gardiner. He graduated from the Gardiner School. Having any wolves killed in 313 “is like Russian roulette. You don’t know if the wolf that is killed is one that is going to be known to wolf watchers and tourists.” He recalls the boycott of some Gardiner businesses after 06 was killed.

Nathan’s comments draw opposition from a man in the back row. “There’s probably a lot of folks who weren't here or who don’t remember that once upon a time Gardiner was a much more thriving town that was busy all summer, all fall, and a good portion of the winter.” He looks around the room and adds, “There are a lot of us who have lost economic stability due to the lack of management [of wolves]…” 

He refers to a time when elk hunters with guns boosted Gardiner’s economy. Now the money comes primarily from ecotourists armed with spotting scopes. 

Judging by the comments tonight, when it comes to the economic impact of wolves, the pro-wolf and anti-wolf sides share little common ground. One side says that their incomes fall when wolves are killed. The other side says that their incomes fall when wolves are not killed.

Sheppard steps close to the front row of attendees, stops and scans the faces before him. He appears to be composing himself. Then he nods as if giving himself permission to speak. “Across the state of Montana, wolves are an accepted part of the landscape, much more so than here. I’m going to ask you to think about this: Why is poaching so much greater here in the Gardiner Basin than anywhere else in the state? That’s a fact.” He pauses to let that shocker sink in. “I would ask all of you in this room, on both sides of this issue, to look inside yourself and answer that question.”

Shauna asks Sheppard, “Does that imply tolerance is lower here or is that because we know our wolves and we know when they go missing?”

Sheppard nods his head thoughtfully, then divulges that he has lived and worked as a wildlife agent in other communities including McCall, Idaho (a state infamous for hunting and poaching wolves). He tells us that people in these other locales could not poach any wildlife without someone calling to tell him about it. But no one calls him to report poaching in Gardiner.

I don’t want to believe that Gardiner is Montana’s top wolf-poaching area. And I’m not alone. I can feel the discomfort in the room as Gardiner residents, both for and against wolves, try to digest Sheppard’s statement. 

Final Thoughts

But, today, with the Canyon pack’s alpha female having been poached just outside of Gardiner, I find it difficult to deny that charge. No one knows yet who shot the wolf. It may or may not have been a local. I sure hope it wasn’t.  

photo by Rick Lamplugh
The National Park Service has offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the individual responsible for this criminal act. The wolf advocacy group Wolves of the Rockies has offered a $5,000 reward. The Center for Biological Diversity and the Heart of Wild Yellowstone have also offered rewards. If you have information that could help with this investigation, please contact the National Park Service Investigative Services Branch (ISB). Your tips will be confidential. You don't have to tell them who you are, but please tell them what you know:

CALL the ISB Tip Line 888-653-0009
TEXT to 202-379-4761
ONLINE and click "Submit a Tip"
MESSAGE via Facebook @InvestigativeServicesNPS or Twitter @SpecialAgentNPS

Rick Lamplugh writes to protect wildlife and preserve wildlands. He lives near Yellowstone’s north gate and is just finishing a new book about Yellowstone’s grandeur and controversy. He is the author of the Amazon bestseller In the Temple of Wolves. Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from Rick


  1. Thank you Rick for your local insights. It is always helpful to get a look into local thinking and emotions. It doesn't lessen the pain of the loss, and the frustration with the ongoing anti-wolf venom. But thanks for sharing your experience.

  2. Thank you Rick and ALL of those in Gardiner for the tireless work to protect the Wolves... the Life that is so precious... it is so much more than the wolves as many of us understand. It is the reflection of the very
    Soul of all of mankind.

  3. Great and very sad read as it seems that some of the locals do not understand the meaning of sustainable regular income ��

  4. Thank you Rick for this information. My husband and I stay in Gardiner when come to Yellowstone. After next weeks visit,we will never spend a dime there.

  5. An excellent piece, almost painfully objective towards the end. Well done--and keep up the good work!

  6. thanks, Rick, for your cool and calm representation of this event. Very tragic loss.

  7. Thanks for writing. I'm sharing where I can. I don't think enough people in the U.S. understand the vulnerability of these animals once they leave the park. I just find this completely absurd. There needs to be more awareness of this and extended protection outside of the park. I think most people probably think these animals are protected in the park, but the reality is they're not. Sorry for the loss of this wolf.

  8. So sad that she was killed and for what reason??? Gut shot and left to die. My heart aches for these beautiful animals that are mercilessly hunted and killed. My thanks to all you defenders of wildlife, who are doing all you can to help protect our four footed relations.

  9. Thank you for your article. It is so sad that someone who do this. I sincerely hope the reward to bring the despicable person or persons to justice. I shared your article with as many people and organizations I can. Hope it helps. I donated to the Wolves of the Rockies. Hopefully many other people will also.

  10. Thanks for the info about the meeting. Enjoyed your book. Just found your post after writing about the killing a little while ago.

  11. My last trip to Yellowstone was in February. For the first time I saw no wolves. I saw plenty of elk in Gardiner and Paradise Valley. I can't believe you are allowed to take 5 wolves a year/person. That is just wrong.

  12. Thank you for your local perspective. The fact is, the world is more than just the local perspective. It is a giant hive where the activities of one area affect every other.
    Bottom line, humanity must learn to live with the other animals on the planet or die from foolishness and loneliness of spirit. We are pathetically close to the later.

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