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.
The 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.