How Wolves Become Habituated to Humans in Yellowstone National Park

Lamar Canyon Gray Pup with no Fear of Humans, Roads or Vehicles

“Despite no close human contact, and only being watched through scopes for about one month, at approximately 600 yards away, this gray wolf pup showed no fear of humans, roads or vehicles, the first time we saw him away from the rendezvous site.”

This was the large gray pup that I called Big Gray, Jr., born after his daddy, 925, was killed by the Prospect Peak pack. The year would have been 2015 and none of 926’s five pups survived. It was the last time that we saw the Lamar Canyons with pups until this fall.

2015 looked like it was going to be a much better year for the Lamar Canyons. Still sad about 925’s death and the six pups leaving when 926 hooked up with the Prospect boys, with Twin as her alpha male, there were five pups. Hopes were high. Yearlings, Little and Big T returned to mom, 4 males from the Prospect Peak pack had joined the Lamars, and with 926 and the 5 pups, there were 12 wolves!

Waiting to see the pups had everyone excited and looking hard for them. There was a brief sighing of 5 pups one day – it happened at the exact time that I was sitting amongst the sagebrush in Soda Butte Valley, watching a badger, and looked up to see 926 staring at me. She was just headed somewhere and neither of us knew that the other was in the area. So, more looking and waiting.

On July 29, I decided to walk out the trail some and look back up at the den hill. No sooner had I set up my scope and looked, did I see the wolves. This viewing spot was about 6 to 700 yards from the rendezvous area, on the other side of the road, looking through a very narrow cut in the lower hills, before the trees. From that day, on through August, we saw those pups every day. 

In the beginning, the pups looked very healthy and cute. The adults were crossing the road nearly every day and going out hunting. Unfortunately, due to the crowds of people, the shy males in the pack, and Big T, often spent their days howling from back in the trees and didn’t participate in too much pup feeding.

Then, we began to notice that the pups were doing a lot of scratching. I was in denial but it did turn out that they had mange, which seemed to look worse every day. 

No body ever went near these pups. They were too far away for photos and so I was just content to watch them. But, of course, I dreamed of puppy photos some day. I wasn’t prepared for the habituated behavior I saw from these pups though, the very first time that they encountered us.

The pups had tried to follow the adults and were on the wrong side of the road. Eventually, they approached the pullout, with no fear whatsoever of us, and crossed the road. As you can see here, had this car been going fast, the pup would have been hit. As it was, they were moving slow and the pup made it safely across. 

Even from the long distance that was maintained between us and the 5 pups, we became an accepted part of their lives and were not feared. From 6 to 700 yards away, the pups became used to vehicles, voices, things being pointed in their direction, humans walking around, and thought that we were safe. No contact, no close encounters, just our constant and distant presence. This realization was quite the eye-opener for me. Some folks were accusing the photographers of making the wolves habituated and this did not make sense to me, with hundreds of people following them everywhere, every single day. When I hike out about 1/2 mile, I can hear whole conversations taking place at the road. People don’t realize how loud we are and some times these gatherings are just social events, instead of respectful wildlife viewings. (Respectful towards the wildlife and those who want to enjoy the quiet of nature.)

So, right before my eyes, there was evidence that just watching from a long distance, habituates a wolf.

When I arrived in Yellowstone, there were a number of highly habituated wolves – 06, 754, 926, 820, 755, (most of the Lamar Canyons), Puff, 889, Big Brown, White Lady, 712. As we know, most of those wolves are gone, if not all, and most were shot and killed. 

We don’t have many habituated wolves in the park now – very few and none as habituated as 926 was.

I don’t have any answers for anyone, as this is a multi-faceted, complex problem.

It wouldn’t make sense to haze wolves and then send people with telemetry out to the park everyday so that hoards of folks can stand around and watch them all day long. Those would be contradictory acts. Believe me, wolves almost always know that the humans are there and they keep track of us much more than you would think. When we leave at night, they come to the pullouts to have a good sniff and mark their territory. 

On the other hand, if people are going to care about wolves, become educated about them, and speak up to save their lives, they need to see the wolves.

Yellowstone wolves live longer, healthier lives, in part because they are in a protected zone with plenty of prey. But, if they leave the park, they are in danger from many sources, not the least of which is hunting. So, is that the chance we take so that people can see wolves, that they will be a target and we will get our hearts broken?

In Yellowstone, we can’t have it both ways – we can’t prevent the wolves from becoming habituated and still allow people to see and learn about them. The only thing that I can suggest, after watching this whole thing for many years, is watch them less with telemetry. Let people find them on their own, like they do every other animal in the park. Now, I am a photographer and a guide in Yellowstone, and this suggestion would most surely impact my business. But, I was never guaranteed to make a living off of the wolves in Yellowstone and every minute spent with them has been a gift. If it is decided that our guiding and photography businesses are adversely affecting the wolves, and the park decides to curtail its wolf watching program so that we can’t see them as often, then so be it. In my opinion, it is the lives of the animals that matter first. But, this would have to be fair to everyone in the park, with every single visitor being treated exactly the same and being expected to follow the same rules. 

Wolves are too big of a money maker in Yellowstone and I doubt that anything will change because of that. Which means that we just need to know right up front, when we fall in love with a certain animal and follow its life, that it could die tragically, at the hands of another human.

So, that leaves us with educating the public by having respectful conversations. Working for better hunting laws. Give facts instead of emotional responses when talking about the wolves. That means representing those who can’t speak for themselves in the most respectful, intelligent and diligent manner possible. And, that we never quit trying. We never shut up or back down – but, we also don’t do anything hateful to another human that could make them want to kill a wolf in revenge. 

This is just my point of view. Our experience with the five puppies in 2015, none of which survived, told the truth about what causes an animal to become habituated, and, as Doug Smith said, we are all responsible. Some months later, I was photographing this pup on a hill and it came right down to me and stood next to me in the road. I was so baffled by this behavior and had no clue what to do. Today, I would clap my hands and not let it feel comfortable standing next to me. Then, I just stood there with my mouth open. No, I did move to the other side of my car but he just sat there and looked at me.

One Month Later and the Wolf Pups Easily Crossed the Road, Near Humans