25 Years of Wolves

Wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies is a success story, so far, though we don’t know exactly what comes next

By Rob Breeding

If you had asked me 30 years ago if wolves would ever be reintroduced to the Rockies, I would have been a skeptic.

I still lived in California then. The Rockies were an abstraction for me. Montana might well have been one of the outer solar system gas giant planets for all I knew of it. I didn’t step foot in the state until I moved to Hamilton in 1992.

That was three years before wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone and the Bitterroot/Selway in January of 1995.

I supported the wolves’ return, though a part of me wanted them to accomplish recolonization on their own, as they did in places like the North Fork of the Flathead. Canadian wolves were already prowling that part of Montana by the time I made it.

The offspring of the transplanted Canadian wolves are continuing their southward migration. Oregon has resident wolves and some of those have turned up in the Golden State.

Now there is confirmation of wolves in Colorado, where voters will have the chance this November to weigh in on relocating more wild canines to jumpstart the process.

My guess is the initiative will pass. Even if it doesn’t, wolves will eventually take care of Colorado on their own. But if the initiative passes, or fails for that matter, it will serve as a significant expression of public sentiment on the issue.

I don’t have a problem with wolf management in Montana or Idaho. Wyoming remains a rogue state, but even there, numbers are steady. I’m fine with it even if that wolf management — which as I’ve always said really means killing — is in response to social rather than biological concerns.

The notion that management is going to drive wolves to a second extinction event in the Northern Rockies is hysteria. For goodness sakes, the program is so successful that the animals have made it to Colorado AND California. They don’t need to go much farther south than they already have to reoccupy their historic range. Mexican gray wolves have dibs on the Southwest, if that recovery effort ever takes hold.

Not everyone likes wolves, nor considers the success of this recovery effort a “success” story. I don’t think those concerns are without merit. The dramatic decline of the northern Yellowstone elk herd was a game changer for hunting guides and outfitters who worked outside Yellowstone Park. But there’s considerable evidence that the herd had grown to an unsustainable level before wolves arrived, and the landscape has been set on a healthier trajectory since elk overgrazing was reduced.

Fewer elk will never be an acceptable outcome for some, but I think we’ve got bigger problems than wolves to address in the short run anyway, such as hunter access on private land where elk take refuge after opening day.

I’d be fine if trophy hunters reduced the wolf population in the Northern Rockies down a bit since the numbers remain well above minimum population levels set when the program began. It might be social/political management, but we could use a bit more of that. I think it would help reduce the temperature around the issue.

The three states that share portions of Yellowstone will always be the core of wolf recovery in the West, but I hope sustainable populations become established in the surrounding region, especially California. That upper northeastern corner of the state is more Montana than it is San Francisco, and there’s enough room, and game, to keep a few packs busy.

Wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies is a success story, so far, though we don’t know exactly what comes next. That’s why I like to say wolves changed the trajectory of the ecosystems where they were reintroduced, rather than restored them. Restoration is a complicated, never-ending process.

It’s a good project for the next quarter century.