12 January 2015
There is fresh snow on the ground today, and the winter sun shines out at random from behind the wispy clouds that shroud the mountain peaks. The temperature will not climb above freezing today, but dozens of people are gathering here in the twilight before sunrise to caravan into Yellowstone for a chance to glimpse the wolves that now roam here, and to celebrate the remarkable events that made this day possible. Twenty years ago today, gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park. It was a time of international celebration for wildlife advocates, and especially those of us who had worked so hard to restore wolves to the American West. To understand why this was such a miraculous event, you first have to understand the history that led to the reintroduction of wolves to the Rockies.
Though wolves were once one of North America’s most broadly distributed large mammals, government and ranching led efforts to eliminate wolves throughout the lower 48 states. By the 1930s, wolves were nearly eradicated from the Lower 48. The known wolf population in the continental U.S. plummeted from estimates of several hundred thousand to only few hundred wolves in northern Minnesota. The species was restricted to less than one percent of its former range. As generations passed, the wolf itself faded into fairy tales, typically characterized in western culture as a dangerous beast that preyed on pigs and red hooded girls.
In the 1960s and 1970s, mainstream American culture became more environmentally aware, prompting public concern for imperiled species. Significant changes in wildlife management included strong support for wolf protection. In 1974, wolves outside of Alaska gained protection under the newly adopted Endangered Species Act. In 1978 wolves were listed as endangered throughout the contiguous 48 states, except in Minnesota where they were listed as threatened. Wolves were starting to return on their own in the Rockies by dispersing from southern Canada into northern Montana and Idaho. But the ESA listing meant that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) had to actively recover wolves.
Wolves in the Northern Rockies
In 1986, biologists searching for wolves in northwest Montana found a litter of wolf pups only 10 miles below the Canadian border in Glacier National Park. They were the first confirmed wolves born in the western U.S. in decades. A few wolves were also documented in Idaho and Wyoming during the 1980s and 90s, but most were poisoned or shot. Others appeared to be lone wanderers, or simply disappeared, their fate unknown.
In 1993, USFWS proposed five alternative plans for wolf recovery. The options ranged from “no wolves” to the reintroduction of wolves with full endangered species status and protection. The agency received more than 160,000 comments from all 50 U.S. states, plus another 40 countries; the largest public comment responses received on any wildlife restoration action it had ever proposed. Defenders of Wildlife members and supporters contributed 88,000 of these comments.
Thankfully, the chosen plan is the one that brought wolves back to the west. In 1995 and 1996, USFWS – working with scientists, nonprofits, state agencies and more – reintroduced 66 wolves to central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park. I was a member of the reintroduction team and have spent the last 28 years as a full time wolf conservationist in the West. I watched as the first wolves in decades took their first steps into the wilderness in Idaho (full story of that reintroduction here). It is still a miracle to me that despite all the political challenges and obstacles, most of which occurred behind the scenes, Americans came together to restore wolves to Yellowstone and Idaho – the only missing large mammal, and one of the most vital predators.
At last count, there were approximately 1,600 wolves in the Northern Rockies region. In comparison, we have nearly 10,000 mountain lions, 100,000 black bears and hundreds of thousands of coyotes in the same area . Wolves are still under a lot of threats, and we must continue to protect their survival. While support for wolves is growing exponentially among wildlife enthusiasts worldwide, these animals still face tremendous danger nearly year round in some states where they are being aggressively killed.
As wolves were returned in the northern Rockies, the age-old conflicts that led to their original demise have also re-emerged. The most significant conflicts are based on fear of livestock losses, despite the fact that in the last two decades, less than 1 percent of livestock losses were due to wolves. The negative folklore of the past centuries still feeds deeply rooted intolerance and resentment. The greatest challenge now is to build acceptance and appreciation for wolves by bringing people together to learn how live with this magnificent native species once again.
For the Wolves.
Suzanne Stone is Defenders of Wildlife’s national wolf conservation expert and Northwest Senior Representative.