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Town of Silver Gate Caught In the Crossfire After Wolf Shooting

It’s no wonder people were outraged by the killing of wolf 926F. But has their rage been misguided?

Also known as “Spitfire”, 926F was the alpha female of the most famous wolf pack in the world (the Lamar Canyon Pack) in one of the most famous National Parks in the world (Yellowstone National Park).  Yellowstone had more than 4 million visitors in 2018 alone and a large portion of them came to see these wolves. It’s not an exaggeration to say she was known and loved by many thousands. In November when 926F was killed by a trophy hunter outside the park in the small town of Silver Gate, a lot of people were understandably distraught.

926F, alpha female wolf of Lamar Canyon Pack, Yellowstone
The beloved wolf 926F, alpha female of the Lamar Canyon Pack in Yellowstone. Killed November 2018

These days, when people get upset, they don’t write to their representatives. They go on Facebook and rant. Facebook rants turn into blaming sessions and blaming sessions turn into public shaming. Shaming inevitably turns to talk of boycotting. This sort of swift social justice can have powerful results. We witnessed a pair of misogynistic coffee shop owners get pressured out of our town just days after a disgusting blog detailing their sexual conquests was exposed. They sold the shop and left, all thanks to internet pressure. Social media warriors in action, right?

But what happens when innocent people get caught in the crossfire of well-intentioned but misguided internet rage? This seems to be the case in the tiny town of Silver Gate, Montana just outside of Yellowstone’s northeast entrance.

Silver Gate, Montana. Stop the Car Trading Post
The tiny town of Silver Gate, Montana. Don’t blink or you might miss it.

Soon after 926F’s death, thousands of bereaved wolf-lovers started looking for someone to blame. The shooting occurred in Silver Gate but was committed by a resident business owner from the town next door: Cooke City. This seemed like a good place to start. In one example of pitchfork-wielding mob justice, a group of facebookers review-bombed the Cooke City/ Silver Gate Chamber of Commerce Facebook page and tanked it so quickly with negative reviews that the section had to be removed. As these little towns rely on tourism for their survival, many believed this would pressure them to do something about it.

At the same time, some more positive action was in motion. A bill, introduced by Montana state Senator Mike Phillips after 926F’s killing,  was conceived to ban the hunting and trapping of wolves in two wolf-management zones outside the northern boundary of Yellowstone. These zones encompass the town of Gardiner at the Northwest entrance of the park, and Silver Gate and Cooke City outside the Northeast entrance. Currently each of these zones has a state-mandated quota of 2 wolves per season, the result of a previous compromise between the park and Montana FWP (Fish, Wildlife & Parks). Last week, Montana Senate Bill 185 was rejected by the Senate Fish and Game Committee. Facebook outrage was once again stirring up talks of boycotting the little towns of Silver Gate and Cooke City. Even the town of Gardiner, uninvolved in the incident, was getting thrown into the boycott pile. In response to this news, we published a post about supporting the wolf-friendly businesses in Silver Gate and Cooke City.

Cooke City, Montana in a snow storm
Cooke City, less than 3 miles up the road from Silver Gate and not much bigger.

While researching that article I got into discussions with several locals from Silver Gate and received a rare inside view from the folks caught in the middle.  I started to ask myself, was my writing of the article simply making things more difficult for a group of good people? After reading this, hopefully you will ask yourself, is my social media outrage actually helping wolves or is it simply hurting other pro-wolf supporters?

wolf 926F Lamar Canyon Pack, Yellowstone
How are our actions helping wolf conservation?

A View From the Inside

I messaged Silver Gate business owners to see if they supported the idea of a ban on wolf hunting around the Silver Gate and Cooke City area. This was the response from one Silver Gate Resident and business owner (reproduced with permission.)

“I doubt you’d find that there are any business owners (and very few residents) in Silver Gate who are pro wolf hunting in this immediate area. The killing of 926 right in our back yard was horrific. It’s not just a wolf issue, it’s a safety issue as well. There shouldn’t be ANY kind of hunting going on here in town. Many of us contacted our representatives, county commissioners, congress people and MT FWP, to no avail. The current way forward might be to try to create a “safety zone” in the area as any phrase that contains the words “no hunting” seems to be a non-starter.

I have received MANY calls from people asking the same question as you, some openly threatening to boycott my business if they didn’t like my response. The gist of some of these calls seems to be that we as the business owners and residents have some kind of control over this. There are EIGHT full time residents of Silver Gate. We can’t even get our own COUNTY to care about our opinion, and some of these people think we have some power or influence over our elected state officials or state agencies? Eight of us? Seriously? Some seem to think that because we live three miles from the man who killed 926, that we are all somehow responsible. One man said that the communities of Silver Gate and Cooke City “better decide” which side of this issue we want be on. Can you find ANY community in America where all members in that community are on the same side of a controversial issue? We are all doing our best to get along and pay our mortgages. I don’t believe that making life difficult for a few small business owners in this very small area will have any affect on the Montana State Legislature or the policies of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. It will simply hurt a few individuals and this small community as a whole.

In answer to your question, I am proudly pro-wolf and pro-wildlife. Thanks for asking!”

I admit this opened my eyes a bit. In my response I made it clear we were not supporting any type of boycott, merely trying to give more promotion to the businesses who supported the ban. But it did cause me to question my goal. Would supporting (or not supporting) a handful of businesses have any real effect on the legislature who actually make the decision? Clearly not. So what actually was the point of my list and what was I hoping to accomplish? I tried to justify myself by responding that at least “social and economic pressure certainly can have an effect on an individual’s behaviors. Will a guy whose business took a serious hit for killing a wolf go out and shoot another wolf? Maybe. But maybe he’ll think twice next time?”

“The irony of a boycott is that the individual responsible for the death of 926 will NOT feel any pain from a boycott. He runs a thriving, successful business that will not feel the effects of a boycott and he’s probably one of the wealthiest people in town. Some of the businesses around him, not so much…. anyone who thinks this is going to change his attitude or behavior towards hunting or wolves is woefully mistaken. It will have a negative affect on the community and the families that live here, but not on him.”

And some more info on the frustrating situation that the locals have been put in

“It’s been a frustrating time. We feel powerless, we feel badgered and bombarded by threatening phone calls. There was a recent broadcast on a Billings TV station where a man from Pennsylvania claimed that residents of Silver Gate and Cooke City were baiting wolves into town. WHAT? There may be some people who are not fans of wolves in the Cooke City area, but nobody is BAITING wolves into town. Who is this guy? How in the hell would he know what we’re doing here? No vetting of the story, just spreading it.

Some of the messages left on Facebook pages would make you blush. We’re all F-ing, dumbass inbred wolf haters here in Silver Gate and Cooke City, and people who shoot wolves deserve to die. Or the incredibly naive comments like, “We thought you people all agreed not to shoot wolves?” The whole situation has made business owners NOT respond to questions like yours, it’s made even pro-wolf people angry and hurt and less likely to want to get involved in trying to make a change.”

It’s hard to understand why Montana doesn’t acknowledge the economic value of wolves to the state’s tourism industry. It’s similar to having a discussion about gun control with a member of the NRA. Gun CONTROL suddenly becomes (in their ears) repealing the 2nd amendment. Here in MT, when hunters hear the words “no hunt zone” they see it as a slippery slope to “NO HUNTING”, ANYWHERE and it turns into a discussion about “Montana values”.

And finally, continuing to drive home the point that economic pressures on Silver Gate/Cooke City will have no positive effect for wolf conservation and definitely not toward the formation of a no-wolf-hunting zone in the area.

“I’d love for people to realize that we do not have the power to change the situation, that the voices of two towns [Silver Gate and Cooke City] with TOTAL of less than 100 residents are lost in the wind. We don’t generate enough tax dollars to even merit a police officer in our 2 towns. To hold me personally responsible for something someone else legally did seems absurd to me. It might make people feel better to boycott our area, or not support [the business of the man who shot 926F] but I don’t believe that is going to achieve the goal of allowing wolves (or any animal) to wander out of the park and not got shot.

That power rests in the hands of the law makers and we have to figure out how to change THEIR minds. Hurting my business, or a hotel in Cooke City is NOT going to reach the politicians or even come close, we’re just too little to generate any “fire”. People are absolutely free to spend their money or not spend their money wherever they choose. By boycotting Gardiner or SG/CC, they may think they are putting some sort of pressure on Montana, but they will simply succeed in making life more difficult for a few families in a couple of small, rural towns. I just feel that all this emotion and energy needs to be directed at the people who legislate the hunting laws in this state. It wasn’t successful this year, but we can keep working towards change in 2 years.

I hope we can all work together to try to make progress on this issue. It won’t be an easy fight, but it’s one worth fighting.”

Which brings us to the most important point of all. What can people do to help bring about positive change for wolves in the Yellowstone region?

Where to Direct Your Internet Angst

1) Montana Dept of Fish, Wildlife & Parks

So hassling businesses in Silver Gate or Cooke City isn’t going to help the creation of no-hunting zone for wolves in the area. Who has the actual power then? Primarily it is the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks that determines the legal hunting quotas for wolves in each ‘wolf management zone’ throughout the state. If you want to express your feelings about Yellowstone wolves getting shot when they set foot across the border, and the economic value of living wolves, start here.

Here is a page with a list of the members of the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks commission. Here is another good page with an explanation of how the fish and wildlife commission works. Below are a few key contacts for the state and for the region surrounding Silver Gate and Cooke City.

Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks

Region 3 Headquarters

Martha Williams
FWP Director

Howard Burt
Wildlife Manager Region 3

Abby Nelson
Wolf Management Specialist Region 3

Adam Pankratz
FWP Warden Captain Region 3

Mark Deleray
Regional Supervisor Region 3

2) Senate Fish and Game Committee in Montana

The next possible chance at instituting the ban is to help Bill 185 (or whatever its next incarnation may be called) get more traction the next time it goes to vote in the Montana Senate by contacting the members of the Senate Fish and Game Committee of Montana. This committee voted down the bill 9 to 1. (The only member of the committee who supported the bill was Senator Edith McClafferty, (D-Butte) so send her a thank you!) (Source: MEIC). Tell them you want this bill passed and why, perhaps mentioning how the negative publicity from killing beloved wolves will hurt Montana tourism badly. 

This senator voted FOR the bill so send her a thank you!

BUTTE, MT 59701-5014
Phone: Not available

All the rest of these senators voted against the bill:

PO BOX 2558
Phone: Not available

PO BOX 1889
EAST HELENA, MT 59635-3442
(406) 227-1144

610 ROAD 118
WIBAUX, MT 59353-9058
(406) 365-7967
(406) 989-1372

HAMILTON, MT 59840-9230
(406) 360-0009

BELGRADE, MT 59714-8416
(406) 388-2407
(406) 580-0035

PARK CITY, MT 59063-0010
(406) 633-2762

GREAT FALLS, MT 59404-1634
(406) 868-9814

PO BOX 104
MALTA, MT 59538-0104
(406) 654-1117
(406) 654-7357

(406) 698-9307

3) Montana House of Representatives Committee on Fish, Wildlife, and Parks

The bill didn’t make it to the House of Representatives this time but lets make sure it does next time! (Keep in mind them members of these committees may change by the next time it comes up. This is the 2019 list. You can see all the standing committees of the MT House of Rep here..)

Brown, Bob (R) – Chair
(406) 827-9894
(406) 242-0141

Fitzgerald, Ross (R) – Vice Chair
(406) 788-1443
(406) 467-2032

Perry, Zac (D) – Vice Chair
(406) 261-9642

Berglee, Seth (R)
(406) 690-9329

Brown, Zach (D)
(406) 579-5697

Duram, Neil (R)
(406) 471-2356

Farris-Olsen, Robert (D)
(406) 794-4780

Fuller, John (R)
(406) 253-4897

Knudsen, Rhonda (R)
(406) 489-5253

Krautter, Joel (R)
(406) 482-9610
(406) 560-5952

Loge, Denley (R)
(406) 649-2368
(406) 544-5220

Runningwolf, Tyson (D)
(406) 338-2125
(406) 845-2115

Smith, Bridget (D)
(406) 230-2268
(406) 653-1234

Stewart-Peregoy, Sharon (D)
(406) 639-2198

Sweeney, Mark (D)
(406) 560-0171

Vinton, Sue (R)
(406) 248-1984
(406) 855-2625

Weatherwax, Marvin (D)
(406) 338-7741
(406) 270-7571

White, Kerry (R)
(406) 587-3653

Where to Direct Your Internet Love

One of the heroes in this fight is Montana state Senator Mike Phillips who sponsored the bill along with a slew of other pro-conservation bills, intended to:

  • Prohibit contests for predatory animals, (SB 186)
  • Prohibit vehicular injury of predatory animals (SB 187)
  • Prohibit sale of ivory (SB 221)
  • Establish targets, reporting, and monitoring for CO2 emissions (SB190)
  • Study resolution on value and costs of wolves and grizzlies (SJ 7)

So support the people who are trying to make this happen. And keep supporting the good folks in Silver Gate and Cooke City who are on the ground and in the front lines of this conflict. We’re still going wolf watching in Yellowstone and we’re still going to stay in Silver Gate and Cooke City when we do.

It’s going to be an uphill battle convincing people in Montana that wolves and humans can coexist peacefully. As one Silver Gate resident put it, “it won’t be an easy fight, but it’s one worth fighting.”

Lamar canyon wolf pack, Yellowstone
The Lamar Canyon Pack, with 926F in front, before her death.
Hal Brindley at the Antarctic Circle

Hal Brindley

Brindley is an American conservation biologist, wildlife photographer, filmmaker, writer, and illustrator living in Asheville, NC. He studied black-footed cats in Namibia for his master’s research, has traveled to all seven continents, and loves native plant gardening. See more of his work at Travel for Wildlife, Truly Wild, Our Wild Yard, & Naturalist Studio.