COOKE CITY – Residents of a small town near Yellowstone National Park, where a collared park wolf was shot by a local resident, say visitors don’t understand their community.
The road ends in Cooke City during the winter months as the Beartooth and Chief Joseph passes to the east are closed during the snow season.
The town of fewer than 200 people just outside the remote northeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park depends on snowmobilers and a few winter wildlife watchers to keep its winter economy going.
That’s why a worldwide backlash on social media to the killing of a tagged Yellowstone National Park wolf in November of 2018 is troubling some business owners.
“I feel when people don’t have the correct information it’s bad for business. I cater to a lot of the wildlife groups in the summer and winter and they are a big chunk of my business,” said Jan Gaertner, owner of Buns & Beds restaurant and B&B.
She is talking about Yellowstone wolf 926 which was killed legally by a hunter with a tag but it immediately sparked a buzz that it had been baited.
“And it’s a lot of supposition, a lot of rumor and it’s made it challenging,” said local wildlife guide Audra Taylor.
Barbara Ulrich of the Bear Creek Council said the conservation group she represents hopes to counter the bad publicity.
“Knowing the facts, dealing with the facts, is the best way to kind of squash that,” Ulrich said.
“We went in and investigated that and it wasn’t, it wasn’t true. We haven’t found any evidence that people are baiting wolves,” said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesperson, Greg Lemon.
But a lot of the growing number of wildlife tourists don’t seem to know that.
“There is a lot of people that come in this area that think that, that all of the locals are against the wolves and it’s not, it’s not the case, it’s not true,” said local hunting guide Ralph Johnson.
While Johnson is a hunting guide, he also has a robust business guiding wolf and other wildlife watchers. He doesn’t offer guiding services for wolf hunting.
“Tourism is vital in our community because so many people have come and they come here because they want to see wolves. And they come here and they see them, and they get excited, and they want to know more,” said Ulrich.
“Even though you have a small percentage of hunters in this area, it’s not, it doesn’t represent the majority of Cooke City folks,” said Gaertner.
In spite of that, she is quick to defend the rights of hunters to legally harvest game, including wolves and says she supports management and killing of wolves outside the park. But Gaertner and others don’t like the idea of killing a collared wolf.
“Many of the wolves that have been taken legally in the hunt, have been collared wolves and when you lose that you lose a tremendous amount of data,” said Ulrich.
A recent University of Montana study says that wolf watchers bring in more than $35 million to communities around Yellowstone.
But making the big predators like wolves, bears and mountain lions a part of your business plan also means making adjustments to your lifestyle. Local residents are urged to use bear-proof garbage containers, not to feed their pets outdoors and to exercise caution when outside with a pet.
“If you live in Gardiner, if you live in Cooke City, I have a dog, a small dog and I, I typically step outside, especially at night, if I have to let him out,” said Ulrich.
“So, my life has changed because I have a dog, and when I walk on the Bannock trail now, knowing that the wolves are using that kind as their pathway between here and the park, um, I keep my dog on a lead,” said Taylor.
But for most, those compromises are worth the payoff.
Gaertner smiled as she said, “People look at us and say, ‘Do you know how lucky you are to live here?’ And I say, oh yes, I do.”
-John Sherer reporting for MTN News
WEB EXTRA: Extended interview segments