Yellowstone hazes wolves that get used to people

Monday, April 26, 2021
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A wolf from the Wapiti Lake Pack surveys the scene near a roadside carcass in February, in northern Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. The park has resorted to aggressively hazing members of the pack that have shown little fear of humans, snowmobiles, snow coaches, and cars. AP PHOTO

JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) — Colleen Marzluff whistled to her ornithologist husband, John, as he was looking for a raven nest in a string of trees on the low southern flank of Yellowstone’s Bison Peak.

Since Colleen had taken on the “sentinel” role, John knew that something furry and large was probably entering the area.

“I heard the whistle, no problem, and I thought, ‘Oh, it’s a bison coming in,’” John recalled of that late spring day in 2020. “It was a really closed-in area, and I couldn’t see anything.”

Wrong species.

Colleen had spotted a couple of wolves — members of the Junction Butte Pack — just over a ridge to the south. One of the canines bolted upon hearing Colleen’s whistle, but the other animal, a black male that would become known as Wolf 1273M, was clearly curious and interested in the humans treading on its turf.

“The wolf absolutely followed my tracks,” John said. “He was just coming towards us.”

The raven researchers weren’t scared. Instead, at first, they were thrilled about the sighting.

“As a wildlife biologist, it was like, ‘Oh my!’” Colleen said. “Cool.”

But then Wolf 1273M became a bit too interested, totally unperturbed by their presence. He followed the corvid scientists, trailing them at about 20 feet away as they retreated from the area. They waved their arms, yelled at the canine and lobbed rocks.

Still, the wolf appeared unfazed. They pulled out their pepper spray and kept moving downhill rapidly. Step by step, perhaps for a half a mile, the wolf closely followed.

“It went from the ultimate wildlife day,” John recalled, “to, ‘Uh oh, we’ve got an issue to deal with now.’”

John finally thought, “screw it,” this wolf needs to learn a lesson. He removed the safety from his bear spray and pulsed the capsicum solution three times in Wolf 1273M’s direction.

“He did not drop or whine or roll or anything, but it clearly sent him a signal,” John said. “It must have got a nose full of the stuff.”

At a greater distance the wolf paralleled them and then angled off toward Slough Creek, ending the encounter.

The Marzluffs’ brush was with one of Yellowstone’s most habituated wolves, at least at the time. Wolf 1273M was raised by the Junction Butte Pack at a 2019 den site just a few hundred yards off the Slough Creek Trail. Fishermen, photographers and hikers frequently crossed paths with the pups that year, and the proximity and interactions at an impressionable age led to animals that became perilously unafraid of humans.

“They’re little puppies, and you’ve got to stay away from them, or they grow up to be bad,” Yellowstone Senior Wildlife Biologist Doug Smith said. “That’s what happened to 1273.”

Two 7-month-old wolves from that litter were hit and killed on roads that year.

Wolf 1273M lived on, but with an unnerving and potentially hazardous comfort around people.

Smith and his staff have grappled with more than the Junction Butte pack when it comes to human-conditioned wolves in recent years. This past winter the Wapiti Pack often traveled the groomed, compacted roads that cut into Yellowstone’s interior.

“They were on the road that leads into Old Faithful,” Smith said. “Snowmobilers were sitting there 10 feet away from wolves.

“Everybody’s just kind of enjoying themselves, but this could lead to the demise of the Wapiti Pack,” he said. “Everyone wants to see a wolf and get a picture. We’re not asking you to blast by them, but we are asking you to get as far away on the road as you can and slowly drive by.”

At one point in the winter some of the Wapiti Pack members split off to the south, heading into Grand Teton National Park. They continued their habit of using the road — except this time a plowed route with vehicle traffic — and were nearly hit by a plow truck, Smith said.

The Yellowstone Wolf Project staff wanted to avoid killing the Wapiti Pack animals, which is an outcome they’ve turned to before when trying to do away with human-conditioned, potentially dangerous behavior.

“These things can have bad endings,” Smith said. “We’ve killed two. If they get too comfortable and too habituated, we’ll take them out.”

One wolf killed years ago met its demise after chasing a cyclist and motorcycle. The other wolf was killed after sticking its head into open car windows.