Twenty years ago this week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists released eight gray wolves into the wilds of Yellowstone National Park, restoring the top predator to the park’s landscape after a 30-year hiatus. Before the year’s end, a female from the Rose Creek pack and a male from the Crystal Creek pack joined up to create the first free-forming pack of wolves observed in Yellowstone in half a century. Biologists named it the Leopold pack, after the conservation pioneer, Aldo Leopold. A second release of wolves into Yellowstone and central Idaho soon followed. Now, two decades later, at least 1,700 wolves roam the Northern Rockies in more than 300 packs. They are hunting, denning and breeding just as they had for thousands of years preceding their extirpation.

wolfphtoThe remarkable comeback of the gray wolf in the Northern Rockies is not only a grand success story of the Endangered Species Act, but undoubtedly one of the greatest achievements in the history of American wildlife restoration. Hundreds of Americans and westerners of all stripes came together to help make room for wolves in the West, including ranchers, conservationists, hunters, wildlife managers, Native Americans and even politicians from both sides of the aisle.

The restoration of wolves has produced a ripple effect of ecological benefits that would have delighted Leopold. In some areas in and around Yellowstone, over-browsed vegetation has been able to recover and regenerate as wolves have thinned and distributed highly-concentrated elk herds. And since wolves tend to prey upon weaker animals, elk herd health is strengthened in the process. (Biologists in Yellowstone have even reported that elk in the park are becoming larger and tougher now that they have another predator to contend with.) Elsewhere in the region, antelope fawn survival has increased as wolves have reduced over-abundant populations of coyotes—the main predator of antelope fawns.

While many in the livestock industry protest about the toll wolves take on cattle and sheep, in fact, livestock mortality due to wolves is relatively small and pales in comparison to livestock losses attributable to other causes. And livestock depredation by wolves can be significantly reduced with appropriate livestock management practices, such as using guard dogs, shepherds and range riders.

Similarly, some hunters have complained that wolves are decimating populations of elk around the region, but that is also an exaggeration. While a few elk herds have declined (for many reasons, including climate change, habitat loss and over-hunting—in addition to wolf predation), many elk herds are faring quite well in the presence of wolves. According to state wildlife agency data, there are actually more elk, overall, in the Northern Rockies than there were at the time of wolf reintroduction. And elk hunting success rates have remained high, especially for those hunters who are willing to walk.

As much as wolves are simple, wild animals trying to eke out a living, they are also hugely symbolic. For those of us who appreciate them, wolves are a symbol of wild places. And for those who despise them, wolves represent, in part, the federal government that returned them to the West. But I believe that the next generation of westerners will grow up accepting that wolves are simply one piece of whole suite of native wildlife in the Northern Rockies – not some mythical monster foisted upon the region. As I reflect upon the historic wildlife restoration event that was kickstarted two decades ago, I cannot help but wonder where we will be with wolves two decades hence. Will some of the seemingly intractable wolf management battles that currently plague western policy debate subside? I hope so.



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5 comments on “Twenty Years Later

    1. What is happening with America’s wolves is a huge embarrassment. That even Disney is teaching lies about them, and Americans have to go to the BBC to teach our children truth is enraging.

  1. wolves are a necessary party of a healthy ecosystem. Please protect the wolves. Please do not de list the wolves. the wolves continue to be endangered. The wolves are social and intelligent and deserve our protection, not to be culled as part of some trophy hunt. Thank you.

  2. I am appalled at the US Government’s UNDOING of what it started 20 years ago. I feel that much of this has been done for the sake of frackers and other excavators, who – were the wolves allowed to roam back to their original historic range freely – would have had to abide by habit constraints that come along with the wolf being listed, particularly difficult for the frackers, since wolves can roam such great distances and that their natural historic range is basically all of the US. Therefore, I feel that they are the primary force behind wolf extermination – which is rampant now. Much of the decline in elk an moose, in addition to global warming, is poaching (which has become a regular thing that people in the “outback” feel is an entitlement. I say this not without some experience, having conversed with people in areas where wolves were once listed. Judges rule, as recently, that wolves in WY and in the Upper Midwest are and constitutionally should be re-listed, and Big Energy (through its always present graft) immediately begins working to undermine these rulings through re-writes of these rulings – something I will never understand and feel is an incredible weakness of our legal system. The President does nothing to support these federal judicial rulings favoring the preservation of wolves, leaving me with my only conclusion thereof being that he is in the pocket of these excavators. He occasionally proposes positive environmental and/or wildlife legislation, but I cannot help but feel that he knows that these proposals will not pass and that he is doing it for his legacy more than for anything else here in the final 1.5 or so years of his office. I am completely disgusted. Wolves are killed freely all over the state of Alaska; they are even killed with intention and in significant numbers in Denali National Park. Where is the justice there? What else is there to say.

  3. We need to keep the wolves on the Endangered Species List providing them with federal protection, otherwise they will become extinct. There is an unprecedented blood thirsty frenzy to kill these magnificent animals in the west and northwest as exhibited by six states in particular in Idaho with their killing derbys.

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