Dec. 12 (UPI) -- The shooting death of a beloved gray wolf just outside Yellowstone National Park has renewed calls to ban hunting in areas beyond the boundaries -- and create a safety net for animals that wander too far.
Last month's shooting death of the wolf -- named Spitfire by wolf enthusiasts and Lamar Canyon Wolf Pack member 926F by scientists -- was a legal kill because the animal had wandered outside Yellowstone's invisible protection borders, according to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Officials say the wolf, or any unprotected animal in the park, is fair game once it wanders beyond the boundaries.
Compounding their concern is that Spitfire was the offspring of another famous Yellowstone wolf -- named 832F by scientists and 06 by her fans -- who was killed in exactly the same fashion six years earlier. The she-wolf was the subject of the book American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West.
Montana has allowed the trophy hunting of wolves since 2011, allowing a small number to be killed within specific districts each year. Conservationists say those rules are not good enough to protect the wolves and there should be a buffer zone that extends from the park's boundaries -- effectively a safety net for the animals that wander too far outside the park.
"There are well-intentioned limits of a total of four wolves in two hunting quota zones along the park boundary in Montana per year. However, the death of a key wolf ... threatens the entire pack," Karol Miller, founder of the Facebook group The 06 Legacy, told UPI.
"For example, the same pack of 06 struggled mightily after she was killed," she added. "926F kept the pack alive through six years of determination, even surviving the deadly disease of mange -- and after three years of no surviving pups, the pack gave birth to five healthy pups this year. Sadly, the remaining pack of two adults and five pups are in grave danger."
Maggie Howell, executive director of the New York-based Wolf Conservation Center, told UPI Yellowstone should follow the lead of a similar park in Canada which had a similar problem. Years ago, a buffer zone was created in Algonquin Park in Ontario to protect the Ottawa Valley Algonquin wolf from hunters. Wildlife officials say that move has been met with great success.
Howell said it makes more economic sense to keep all wolves alive, considering the number of tourists they bring into the park each year.
"Sometimes I wonder if people would more listen to an economist than a conservationist," Howell said. "I'm sure there were t-shirts, posters and I'm not sure those shops support wolves -- but they will make a lot of money off of people who do. It seems to me it would be better to support the Yellowstone wolf population."
For now, though, there is no equal political push for extending protections for wolves beyond national park borders during hunting seasons.
A buffer zone near Yellowstone and other national parks, though, might not even be conservationists' biggest concern. The wolves could become even more of a target for hunters if a House bill passed last month -- to delist gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act -- becomes law.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., has led the charge to delist the wolves. She says farmers have the right to protect themselves and livestock from an increasing threat from the animals without worrying about committing a felony.
"Eastern Washington knows better how to manage our land and wildlife than someone sitting in a cubicle in Washington, D.C.," she said last month. "By delisting the gray wolf, we can allow people in our state and community to use science-based management practices that will benefit both our endangered and native animals while protecting farmers and ranchers."
Further, the gray wolf population has improved since it was listed as "endangered" in some states in the mid 1970s. It was later upgraded to "threatened." It has "least concern" conservation status on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
The bill has been chided by conservationists like Humane Society president Kitty Block, who said it will leave the rare wolves in greater peril.
"This legislation is just the latest in a string of over 50 previous congressional attempts to undermine federal wolf protections," Block said in a statement. "For a handful of legislators to not only remove federal protections for iconic wolves but also undermine citizens' rights to hold their government accountable is unacceptable.
"We urge the Senate to reject this bill, and listen to the majority of Americans who want to keep wolves protected."