Earlier this week, Intercept reporter Ryan Devereaux released details of an investigation, seen for the first time by the public, pointing to multiple National Parks Service (NPS) law enforcement rangers participating in what became the highest death count of the Yellowstone wolves in a century and a major setback for the Park’s wolf research. The article focuses on former NPS ranger Brian Helms, who retired last year and is now the subject of an ongoing investigation into the killing of a collared wolf known as 1233.
Helms claims he has been subjected to a “witch hunt,” though the available information suggests that his killing was not a legal “take,” even by the newly relaxed hunting policy put in place along the Yellowstone boundary by Montana’s Republican Governor Greg Gianforte. (Gianforte’s claim to fame is choking and punching a journalist during a congressional victory party, to which Trump commended him, saying “he’s my guy.”)
Devereaux obtained the documents through a Freedom of Information Act request which appear to indicate 1233 was either shot after 6 p.m. outside the boundary or before 6 p.m. within it. In either case, the killing of the wolf may also not have been reported properly.
The documents Devereaux received contained 296 pages of reports, 247 of which were redacted by the Park Service. Still, what was there was enough to speculate that a number of the kills may have been an “inside job” by Helms and others like him, using their position with NPS to succeed in killing more of Yellowstone’s iconic wolves, possibly at the behest of ranchers.
By the end of the season, one-fifth of the Yellowstone wolf population was dead.
Helms admitted that his former colleagues already viewed him as a wolf hater, which he denies, claiming, “wolves are just like any other animal, and they need to be managed, and the state of Montana chose to manage them the way that they did … I elected to participate in that management action. I purchased a license. I harvested a wolf legally.” (In case you were wondering, yes, Helms has also done the bidding of ranchers in killing Yellowstone buffalo.)
When Helms killed 1233, he was with Ryan Counts, the owner of O Bar Lazy E. Counts, outfitter who gained notoriety when he Tweeted a photo of dead wolves in front of a Trump sign.
From The Intercept article:
The governor of Montana did authorize a wolf hunt unlike anything in recent history. The opportunities to participate were abundant. Still, there were clearly issues in the killing of wolf 1233 that went beyond questions of law. Among former colleagues, the fact that a veteran backcountry ranger capped off the deadliest hunt in modern park history by handing his trophy to a wolf hunter known for celebrating his kills with right-wing political imagery did not send the message of triumph and recovery that Yellowstone spent two and a half decades striving to promote.
The last deadliest year for Yellowstone’s wolves was 2012, when 12 wolves were killed. “We viewed that as catastrophic,” [Doug] Smith, the head of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, told me. Most years, the park expected to absorb the loss of three to four wolves to hunting. “We’re after compromise,” Smith said. “Is 25 a compromise?” Even for a veteran of the worst of the wolf wars, the toll was difficult to stomach. “We were probably the best-studied unexploited wolf population in the world,” Smith said. “And now we don’t have that.”
In January, the FWP [Fish, Wildlife and Parks] commission held a hearing to discuss the ongoing hunt. In the preceding months, Gianforte had added two seats to the commission and made the new appointments: Jana Waller, the host of “Skull Bound Chronicles,” a reality TV show that follows Waller as she turns the skulls of animals she hunts into art, and Bill Lane, the owner of a cattle ranch. At the hearing, … urgent amendments [were introduced] to close the hunt north of the park. The proposal echoed the concerns of virtually every person who called in to comment. It was rejected. The season ended the following month. The information that made it into reporting at the time painted a dark portrait of the hunt’s unprecedented impact. The story unfolding behind the scenes was far more dramatic.