Montana Public Radio

Wolves A Source Of Wonder, Controversy 20 Years After Reintroduction

Jan 13, 2015

Monday marked the 20th anniversary of the arrival of 8 wolves into Yellowstone National Park. That event marked the beginning of the recovery effort for the grey wolf, a species that had been absent from the Northern Rockies for more than 70 years.

Several of the former National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials in the recovery effort met Sunday and Monday to reflect on the effort and consider the future of the grey wolf.

Standing outside the Roosevelt Arch at Yellowstone’s north entrance, John Varley remembers watching the first 8 wolves arrive by stock trailer and pass through this arch. He’s still amazed at the memory.

"And how it happened, I’m not sure I can ever explain."

Varley is now retired. But 20 years ago as director of the Yellowstone Center for Resources he and others talked extensively about wolves with the public, members of Congress, the U.S. Interior Secretary, and the director of the National Park Service.

Varley says hundreds came together to make wolf recovery possible, "and it has been a complete joy to me to watch all of it unfold at this very special place."

Since those initial 14 wolves were released from their holding pens in Yellowstone, visitors have flocked to the park in hopes of seeing this predator in the wild.

Lynette Johnston of Kansas has been coming to the park since 1995 with her husband to watch for wolves.

"We didn’t see them in ’95. We saw them in ’96 and went from 1 day to a week to two weeks.”

Now they’re both retired they spend up to half a year here watching for wolves.

Biologist Doug Smith stopped at a pull-out near the Tower-Roosevelt area and talked with Johnston and others who set up their spotting scopes to watch the wolves.

"Yellowstone arguably is the best place in the world to view wolves. And we’ve got a pack of wolves right out here. We think it’s the Prospect Peak pack. And so we’re enjoying and embracing that moment as having wolves, not only back in Yellowstone, but in the northern Rockies.”

Many hunters and livestock producers, however, are not celebrating this anniversary. Rancher and Senate President Debby Barrett calls wolf reintroduction a fiasco. That’s even though she has a bronze wolf statue in her Senate office.

"Actually he ended up in the anteroom out here and he was unpopular and I said ‘well, I live with them at home all the time I might as well live with one up here in Helena. Bring ‘em in and I like him."

That bronze is by the artist Charlie Russell.

Barrett says her southwest Montana ranch has been visited by the wolves reintroduced in both Idaho and Yellowstone Park.

"I think it’s been a terrible experience from my point of view, from agriculture and livestock. You know we paid the brunt of it and we still are. And I know some people love to see them but if you want to see them and it does your heart to see them you know you could just go to Yellowstone Park. We don’t need them in the numbers we have them."

Barrett insists the government has gone beyond the 150 wolves that were promised.

Park service biologist Doug Smith says he hears that incorrect statement often from stock growers and hunters.

The recovery document explicitly states the goal was ten breeding pairs of wolves in each of the three recovery areas for three successive years. That would lead to delisting from the Endangered Species Act, which has happened.

"Seventeen hundred, the current population estimate, although we’re working on the annual report right now I don’t know what it is for 2014, is over the viable population in the long-term recovery target. So your point is valid. But its also valid the communication about why are we so far over, another short answer is litigation did that."

Still he understands why ranchers are concerned about the numbers of wolves. He says hunting may alleviate that.

Elk hunters, meanwhile, complain the Northern Range herd population is down. Smith says the census doesn’t show that. Biologists estimate there are over 5,000 elk, perhaps as high as 6,000 in that herd. Smith adds wolves have changed the behavior of those elk.

"And we’ve caught over 100 the last 5 years to really look at the wolf-elk relationships now. It’s a big part of our work. The guys who catch them for us say they’re the meanest, toughest elk they encounter anywhere in the Western United States. They’re bigger, nastier, gnarlier, bitchier – because they’re all cows that we catch, than any other elk they run across. And do you know why? Because every predator on the landscape is going after ‘em. And they stand up to them. Hard."

Smith says there’s now a predator-prey balance. He says the greater threat to wildlife will come from humans, including climate change.

Smith says wolf hunting may increase social tolerance of wolves, but he’s worried about continuing human-wildlife conflicts not only in the Northern Rockies, but everywhere wolves are present.

That’s why the spiritual leader of the Blackfeet tribe, Jimmy St. Goddard of Browning, provided a prayer and song to the wolf during the ceremony.