By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Seven wolves that once lived in Yellowstone National Park have been shot and killed by hunters in recent days, triggering an outcry among conservationists and businesses that depend on the park's prized wolf packs.
The wolves, all radio-collared as part of a park research program, were legally hunted outside Yellowstone boundaries after hunting seasons opened earlier this year in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
The deaths have no adverse effect on a park wolf population estimated at 88, said Dave Hallac, chief of resource management and science for Yellowstone.
But the controversy that has erupted in the wake of the killing does not appear to be linked to worries about the population's survival as much as its popularity, he said.
"There's no question these packs are a focal point for visitors and that people who come here to watch wildlife become attached to the animals," Hallac said.
The U.S. government in the mid-1990s released fewer than 100 wolves in the park and in the wilderness near Salmon, Idaho to restore an animal that had been hunted, poisoned and trapped to near extinction.
Today, more than 1,700 wolves roam the Northern Rockies but conflict over the animals has not lessened with their growing numbers. Ranchers and outfitters complain the predators dent livestock and big-game herds while conservationists contend wolves are an integral part of the ecosystem.
Wolves last year were removed from the endangered species list in Idaho and Montana, states that liberally allow shooting and trapping. Wyoming wolves were removed from the list on September 30 and hunted from the next day.
While hunting is banned in Yellowstone, wolves that cross the unmarked boundary into parts of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are fair game. That is not playing well among animal advocates and people whose wildlife watching at Yellowstone has brought personal and professional rewards.
Park and state wildlife officials were flooded with telephone calls on Friday about the dead wolves.
Sandy Sisti, a photographer near Yellowstone whose images of the park's wolves are snapped up by tourists and others, said it made no economic sense to kill members of packs key to the region's tourism economy.
Conservationists said the opening next month of wolf trapping in Montana would further reduce Yellowstone wolves. They are asking state wildlife managers to create a buffer zone outside the park.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission Chairman Bob Ream said on Friday commissioners will take up the question of a buffer zone next month.
"But at some point you have to draw a line and, theoretically, the park is the line," he said.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Todd Eastham)