GARDINER — Twenty years after their ancestors were released here in one of the most controversial wildlife projects of the century, wolf howls punctuated the cold winter air on Monday to the delight of dozens of wolf watchers.
“This is a great day,” said Char Thompson of Eugene, Oregon, as she manned her spotting scope on a snowy hill near Junction Butte to watch the nearby wolves. “To have interaction and so close.”
Members of the Junction Butte pack seemed to be fleeing from the Prospect Peak wolves gathering on the opposite side of the Lamar River. As a black and gray wolf loped south through chest-deep snow, two others sat atop the butte’s ridge as if they had been posted as lookouts to ensure the Prospect Peak wolves weren’t in pursuit.
“Lots of people thought the wolves wouldn’t be very visible when they were reintroduced,” said Rick McIntyre, a veteran with the Yellowstone Wolf Project. “My first day back in the park, I saw the entire Crystal Creek pack, so it’s a big circle of life.”
It was 1995 when the first eight wolves live-trapped in Canada were placed inside fenced enclosures in Yellowstone to acclimate them to the area in hopes they would not immediately bolt back to their homeland — called a soft release.
Lawsuits that had attempted to halt the return of the predators to Yellowstone had failed. So great was the animosity to the project that the Idaho governor had even threatened to call out the National Guard to stop a shipment of the wolves at his state’s border. That also failed, and four wolves were set free in Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. The second year of the project, just shortly before another round of trapping was set to begin in Canada, Congress stripped all funding for more wolf releases. Wolf advocates stepped into the void, contributing $110,000 to allow the work to continue.
“It was a really eventful two years,” said Suzanne Stone, the Northwest senior representative for the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife and a participant in the Idaho wolf project. “The American people ended up funding the second year.”
Twenty years later, about 130 wolves in 11 packs inhabit Yellowstone. At the end of 2013, the most recent tabulated accounts, Idaho’s wolf population was estimated at 659, Montana counted 627 and Wyoming outside of Yellowstone and on the Wind River Indian Reservation was home to 211 of the animals.
Across the Northern Rockies, which includes wolf populations in Glacier National Park, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said at the end of 2013 there were 1,691 wolves in at least 320 packs, and at least 78 breeding pairs — populations that have exceeded government recovery goals since 2002.
“By every biological measure the (Northern Rocky Mountain) wolf population is recovered and remains secure under state management,” the USFWS says on its website.
Depending on your politics, the revival of wolf populations in the three states is either one of the greatest wildlife restoration projects ever undertaken, or the worst idea that the federal government has ever unleashed on ranchers, outfitters and hunters.
A recent study calculated the total number of livestock killed by wolves between January 1987 — which is before wolves were reintroduced — to December 2012 in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming at 5,670 animals: 1,853 cattle and 3,723 sheep. The study goes on to suggest that removal of wolves for livestock depredation can in some cases slightly raise the chance for increased livestock kills.
A 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that out of 1.7 million cattle deaths that year, only 2.3 percent were caused by predators.
A 2008 study by USDA showed that, nationwide between 1991 and 2005, coyotes, dogs and mountain lions were the main killers of cattle. Yet wolves, for centuries, have taken on an almost mythical status as bloodthirsty, wasteful killers.
The animals were removed from Endangered Species Act listing protection, and wolf management was turned over to states when the reintroduced wolves were determined to have met population goals for recovery. The states didn’t hesitate to open hunting and trapping seasons that have seen steady increases in harvest allowances. Montana even cut the cost for nonresident wolf hunting licenses to encourage greater harvest.
Between actions to remove wolves killing livestock, natural mortalities and hunting, in 2013 Idaho documented 473 wolf deaths, Montana counted 230 and Wyoming saw 101 with another seven inside Yellowstone and one on the Wind River Reservation.
Wolf populations in Yellowstone National Park have leveled off after steadily climbing following reintroduction. That’s because the wolves’ main food source, the Northern Yellowstone elk herd, has fallen from about 19,000 before the reintroduction to about 5,000 to 6,000.
“Having these toothy things back, the story deals with fewer elk,” said Doug Smith, Yellowstone Wolf Project biologist. “One reason the happiness over wolves has not taken greater hold is that elk are iconic in this area.”
Political and legal maneuvering over wolves continues. Last year, Wyoming’s delisting was rescinded by a judge after a lawsuit filed by conservation groups, halting the state’s management. In Idaho in 2014, the Legislature approved $400,000 in funding to reduce wolf numbers to 150 animals, essentially authorizing the killing of 500 wolves.
“In the last probably two or three years since the hunting season began, we’ve seen greater and greater animosity toward (wolves), at least in Idaho,” Stone said, despite predictions that state management and hunter harvest might lessen that hostility. “There’s a constant push to try to drop the number of wolves down.”
During a ceremony marking the reintroduction anniversary at the Roosevelt Arch on Monday, Blackfeet Spiritual Chief Jimmy St. Goddard — or Eesukya, sacred holy paint gatherer — sang a prayer for the wolves and praised those who helped restore the animals to the region.
Saying his tribe loves the wolf — makuyi in the Blackfeet language — St. Goddard looks forward to the day when the divisiveness surrounding the animal disappears.
“There’s no other place on Earth like this,” he said. “This is our Jerusalem.”
Pointing to the gathering, he added, “I love you guys, and I love that wolf.”
John Varley, who worked on wolf reintroduction for 12 years while employed at Yellowstone, was one of the officials being honored. He said it still amazes him that the wild canines are back on the park’s landscape.
“It was a long slog,” said the retired chief of the Yellowstone Center for Resources. “I think the day the wolves came in the trailer under the arch was a big surprise to us because the anti-wolf forces had pulled out all of the stops.”
The years since Yellowstone’s wolf reintroduction has produced the “greatest spate of research that could possibly be brought to bear” about wolves, Varley said, ranging from how much the animals eat, to details on how they hunt.
“I think the only thing that has really surprised me about wolves is how many other things they affect,” Varley said. “The number of other creatures they feed is astounding.
“It was the ecological ripple they caused that shot throughout the ecosystem,” he added.
That ripple, despite the passing of 20 years, still rises and falls today.
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