BILLINGS - Seven gray wolves originally from Yellowstone National Park and wearing collars for research purposes have been shot by hunters in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming in recent weeks, a park scientist said Thursday.
There has been no indication any of the wolves were taken illegally, said state officials and Dave Hallac, chief of Yellowstone's Center for Resources.
Two of the animals were from packs that no longer spend most of their time in the park, but the remainder lived and denned primarily in Yellowstone, Hallac said. Four of the seven were shot in Montana, two in Wyoming and one in Idaho.
Wildlife advocates said Thursday the killings underscore the need for a buffer zone around Yellowstone, with strict limits on wolf hunting and trapping. They warned the number of dead park wolves could quickly climb once Montana's trapping season begins next month.
Gray wolves were removed from the endangered species list last year by Congress under pressure from hunting and livestock groups.
Hallac said the number of park wolves killed so far does not threaten Yellowstone's population of 85-100 wolves.
A more immediate worry, he said, is retrieving the research collars used to track the animals' movements. Several of the hunters who shot collared wolves already have offered to return the devices, Hallac said.
"Which is great for us because we have a lot of data on those collars," he said. "We've been able to get some of the collars back and we hope to get all the collars back."
Four collared wolves were killed during prior hunts: two in 2009, when the animals were off the endangered list only temporarily, and two last year, Hallac said.
Montana this year joined Idaho in lifting its quotas on wolves across most of the state, meaning there is no longer any limit on how many can be harvested except in certain areas.
One of those areas abuts the park's northern boundary; the other is around Glacier National Park.
Only three wolves can be killed annually in the special management zone outside Yellowstone, which was established after hunters killed nine wolves there in the span of a few weeks in 2009.
Two wolves have died in the quota area so far this year. It was uncertain if that included any of the collared wolves that were shot.
"That buffer zone is a minimum buffer and this is absolutely not enough," said Kim Bean with the advocacy group Wolves of the Rockies. "These animals travel and they go in and out of the park. They don't go far, but they go far enough."
Generally, any wolf that crosses the park's boundary during hunting and trapping season is considered fair game, said Andrea Jones with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
"The park boundary does not have a fence around it. Animals that have collars on them and are in Montana are considered Montana animals once they cross the border, regardless" Jones said.
Hunters, she added, are allowed to call for wolves to draw them close enough for a shot.
Electronic calls are prohibited in the state, but hunters can use verbal calls just like they can when hunting other species such as elk.
Hunters have killed at least 61 wolves in Montana, 96 in Idaho and 34 in Wyoming this hunting season.
That's a combined 191 wolves out a region-wide population of at least 1,774 animals at the end of 2011.
Government biologists say there are more than enough animals to sustain the species, but wildlife advocates and conservation groups have warned state-sanctioned hunts could again imperil the animals.