When she first saw the scope the hunter aiming her way, Spitfire likely wasn't concerned. The alpha female gray wolf, beloved throughout Yellowstone National Park, was used to throngs of tourists with telephoto lenses, binoculars and cameras monitoring her movements. Humans, proving little more than harmless window dressing against the park's wild scenery, had habituated the wolf to simply ignore them.
According to Yellowstone wildlife officials, this habituation likely led Spitfire to curiously explore new territory outside the park's invisible boundaries without fear. On Nov. 24, near Yellowstone's northeast entrance, she was shot and killed by a hunter as she approached a group of cabins.
"It was a legal harvest, and everything was legitimate about the way the wolf was taken," Abby Nelson, a wolf management specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, told the Jackson Hole Daily. "The circumstances are obviously a little bit harder for people to stomach, because that pack had showed signs of habituation."
The carefree rapport that some Yellowstone wolves have built with humans is reportedly attractive to trophy hunters looking for an easy kill.
"Wolf hunters talk about seeing a pack of park wolves outside the boundary and being able to pick the one they want," Doug Smith, a wolf biologist for Yellowstone, told The New York Times. "They just stand there and have no fear."
Rethinking the wolf/human relationship
Wildlife officials are rethinking how best to manage the relationship between wolves and humans at Yellowstone National Park. (Photo: schizoform/Flickr)
In the wake of yet another famous Yellowstone wolf meeting a violent end on the fringes of the park, officials are actively rethinking how to manage wildlife habituation.
"Having a wolf not wary of a person, that's a product derived from the park," Smith told the Jackson Hole News & Guide. "Those were wolves that lived 99 percent of the time in the park. That's on us, so what do we do? To be honest I don't know, but now everything is on the table."
Smith says one idea currently being considered is a kind of "hazing" policy for wolves. Whereas today wolves are mostly left alone when it comes to their proximity to people, park officials instead might impose greater weariness by using cracker shells, paintball or beanbag guns and other non-injurious deterrents.
"Now we're thinking of pounding them," he added. "If you get close to people, you're going to get hit."
If you think this sounds harsh, you're not alone. Seeing these majestic creatures from the roads that wind through the park not only allows tourists to witness something spectacular, but also to reconnect with nature in a way that transcends any conservation campaign. But there's also a growing sense that the current policy of doing nothing isn't working, that more wolves will needlessly perish and the broken record of hunters scoring easy kills will spin on.
As Smith adds, urging people to meet him halfway and help keep wolves wild is a big ask. Nonetheless, he's hopeful that for the sake of preserving the world's best place to observe free-ranging wolves, it's a policy shift that tourists can get on board with.
"... perhaps that's going to be the outcome of the story of 926 [as Spitfire was also known]," he said, "that her death will accomplish some good, and we'll all come together to do a better job on managing crowds and roads and wolves in Yellowstone."