Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park 25 years ago. Where do they stand now?


Outside a rural firehouse in Alder, Montana last November, pick-up trucks filled the parking lot as a steady stream of modern ranchers and their range-rider cowboys packed the meeting hall to standing room only. Frustration was palpable in the air.

An hour later, iPhone photos of dead calves and half-eaten heifers were projected onto the screen, which not long ago would have elicited gasps and fiery fighting words. Instead they were met by stone-cold silence in the room.

Gray wolves and grizzly bears were to blame for the depredations. But everyone conceded they are not going away. Cited time and again was a watchword that only a generation ago would have been culturally impossible to embrace in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The concept: co-existence between those who raise livestock and advocates for wildlife that have canid teeth and eat meat to survive.

This winter an anniversary is being recognized, a kind of big-bang catalyst that forced a cultural shift to happen: the 25th anniversary of wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park.

In January 2018, the Lamar Canyon Pack spent much of its time along the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by John Layshock

A quarter century ago—some 60 years after they were exterminated by federal and state governments—wolves were brought back to Yellowstone and a separate central Idaho wilderness area in perhaps the most momentous restoration of an annihilated species in human history.

That it could have happened at all, many say, is a miracle. Even before the first lobo transplants from Canada arrived at holding pens in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley prior to release, boisterous predictions were made by ranchers and hunters that disaster would ensue—that wolves would lay bloody siege to cattle and sheep while also devastating big game herds and attacking people. And if that weren’t enough, passionate advocates for Canis lupus on the other side claimed that wolves, as top predator and a missing link forcibly removed, would instantly reinvigorate a lost sense of ecological balance and yield the perfect assemblance of Eden.

After a series of unsuccessful legal maneuverings to block their reintroduction, a dozen wolves were brought to Yellowstone and by 1996 the two-year effort would reach 31 (separately 35 were released in Idaho). Today, their dispersed descendants can be found in five different states and the wolf population numbers upwards of 2,000.

Astonishing is how the convergence in Alder in November 2019 demonstrated how far the conversation about wolves has come, for inside the firehouse were descendants of cattle and sheep growers who believed in their day that completely purging wolves had been for the betterment of the West. On January 12, 1995, then U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the late Mollie Beatty, head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Mike Finley, superintendent of Yellowstone, carried wolves into the park as a symbolic gesture showing humankind was righting an act of biocide.

“I thought it would be a rare person who would be able to see a wolf in Yellowstone but it’s become an industry, a phenomenon.”

Travel back to the early 1990s. While political winds had begun to shift, tempering the “wolves-will-never-ever-be-reintroduced-to-Yellowstone-in- my-lifetime” sentiments that prevailed in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, it still seemed that wolf reintroduction was, at best, a longshot.

In 1991, Yellowstone hosted a gathering of reintroduction advocates that I, as a young reporter, attended.

On a knoll rising above Tower Junction, L. David Mech, the world’s foremost wolf researcher, joined Yellowstone interpretive ranger Norm Bishop who recounted events when the National Park Service was part of the wolf eradication campaign. Between 1904 and the late 1920s, 132 wolves (a number greater than the park population today) were destroyed. In 1926, trappers killed a pair of surviving wolf pups near a bison carcass at Soda Butte and it represented the last whimper for a species that had been there since the end of the Ice Age.

Bishop in the 1980s and 1990s gave more than 400 public talks, reaching tens of thousands of people and laying the groundwork for bringing the pack back. He met resistance from rural communities in the Northern Rockies, with some citizens vowing that any lobos would be greeted with “shoot, shovel and shut-up.”

Some politicians in the region wanted Bishop muzzled. “Nothing has been more satisfying to me than seeing the numerous ways that wolves have been demonstrated to affect the ecosystem and restore it to its normal working relationships, including the dynamics of predators and prey,” Bishop says. “I thought it would be a rare person who would be able to see a wolf in Yellowstone but it’s become an industry, a phenomenon. People come from around the world to see wolves in the Lamar Valley like they would go to the Serengeti to see African lions.”

For his part, Mech says, “It’s become the best lab for studying wolves in the world because you’ve had researchers and a huge involvement from a very engaged and enthusiastic public. Flowing out of it has been a bonanza of information.”

In January 1995, officials carried into Yellowstone the first wolves as part of the reintroduction. (L-R) Project leader Mike Phillips, Yellowstone Superintendent Mike Finley, Director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Mollie Beattie, Maintenance Jim Evanoff, and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt. NPS Photo
Yellowstone Wolf Project members process three tranquilized wolves from the Junction Butte Pack in December 2014. Doug Smith (back), Yellowstone’s senior wolf biologist, handles radio transmissions while the team fits the wolves with GPS collars. Photo by Ronan Donovan

Doug Smith is Yellowstone’s senior wolf biologist and has been profiled on CBS’s 60 Minutes. He is the lead author of a soon-to-be-published book Yellowstone Wolves: Science and Discovery in the World’s First National Park, a tome featuring the perspective of 70 different ecology experts. It is unprecedented and offers the most intensive examination to date of the Greater Yellowstone wolf population. “It represents the state of the art and while it’s a Yellowstone-centric book we took on all of the big themes for wolves and ecology,” Smith said, noting that while a massive amount of information had to be cut to meet length limitations, it will be shared in the coming years.

Inside Yellowstone, Smith notes, 80 percent of wolf deaths are caused by other wolves and outside the park seven of every 10 wolves die from having contact with humans. Wolves endure because they have high reproduction capabilities, according to Smith, because female and male alpha wolves produce new pup litters every year.

During the last 25 years, no one has been a more intent witness than now retired park naturalist Rick McIntyre. He spent, during one stretch, 6,175 consecutive days in the field and put more than 100,000 wolf sightings into 12,000 pages of meticulous journal notes. He is a lobo ambassador nonpareil and his new long-waited book, The Rise of Wolf 8: Witnessing The Triumph of Yellowstone’s Underdog, has received critical acclaim.

McIntyre’s book reads like a lobo version of War and Peace and he uses Wolf 8 as a lens. Wolves have helped transform Yellowstone but perhaps their biggest impact is transforming the attitudes of people, and it can be seen in the tens of thousands of park visitors raised on the tale of Little Red Riding Hood and the “big bad wolf” mythology. “It can be magical, when you allow [the reality of wolves] to come in,” McIntyre told me during one of our many chats over the years. “I once heard someone say, ‘It is hard to hate someone if you know their story.’ If I can tell the story of wolves, I hope to help people see them like I do and therefore treat them with the respect they deserve.”

Ed Bangs, the former wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said that “working with wolves guarantees that you’ll be either famous or notorious.” Smith has been on the receiving end of public vilification, which has flared less as years of accruing scientific data have replaced the hearsay and emotion that has flowed as polemics from both wolf advocates and despisers.

As many as 16 wolves made up the Lamar Canyon Pack in the winter of 2018. They covered Yellowstone territory from Old Faithful to Mammoth Hot Springs and West Yellowstone to Canyon Village. Photo by John Layshock

“Wolves are neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad,'” Doug Smith says. “They are key players in wild ecosystems that help regulate the populations of other wildlife they eat…”

Half a decade ago, writer Paul Schullery made this observation about how the arguments surrounding wolves have shifted. “Here, as always, we struggle with the same mythic temptations of narrative as did our predecessors,” he wrote in a 2014 edition of Yellowstone Science. “Ecologist David Mech has recently articulated a concern many of us have felt, over what he has called the ‘sanctification’ of wolves. Few beliefs have seemed so urgently overwhelming to many of us in the modern Yellowstone community as the apparent conviction that wolves are furry little Anakin Skywalkers who will finally bring balance to the Force. From that point of view, all that’s left is deciding who in Yellowstone’s colorful cast of characters is Darth Vader, and who is Jabba the Hutt.”

Indeed, Mech has told me that wolves don’t deserve their dastardly reputation, “but neither do they float across the landscape on angel’s wings.”

Last August, along the eastern slope of both the Tobacco Root and Gravelly mountains, Bob Sitz who attended the meeting in Alder expressed frustration about predators. The Sitz Angus Ranch outside Harrison is nationally renowned for selling prize Angus bulls. Each summer, Sitz trails a few hundred cows into the Gravellies and in recent years he and other cattlemen have contended with predation by grizzlies and wolves in their cattle allotments on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.

Wolves, which sometimes descend from the Tobacco Roots onto his property, are dispersers from the original transplants in Yellowstone. Since 1995, Sitz has lost 40 confirmed cattle kills to wolves though he estimates the toll could be double that. Like other ranchers, he says more generous compensation to cover livestock losses might achieve more tolerance for predators and that the wolf and grizzly presence stresses out livestock and creates other hassles.

“We can live with wolves—well we have to whether we like it or not, but with all predators we want flexibility to nip problems in the bud,” Sitz said. His sprawling private ranch provides habitat for public wildlife and in order for the ranch to stay undeveloped he needs to stay economically viable.

“Wolves are neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad,’” Doug Smith says. “They are key players in wild ecosystems that help regulate the populations of other wildlife they eat, and if the goal is having a full complement of original species as an expression of a complete ecosystem with its main wildlife parts, then we have success. And the public today, for the most part, gets that.”

Bob Sitz on his ranch near Harrison with one of his cowboys following reports of dead cows on his public-lands grazing allotment in the Gravelly Range. Photo by Todd Wilkinson

In Yellowstone, “wolf watching” is an anchor in the park’s popular nature-tourism economy that generates around 7,500 jobs and close to $700 million annually for the region. In neighboring Grand Teton, the numbers are 8,000 jobs and $800 million. Two of the main attractions are grizzly bears and wolves that can be viewed from the roadsides.

In Yellowstone, wolf watching alone is estimated to generate at least $35 million in annual spending based on people who say they are coming to the park primarily to see wolves and the amount of money they spend to make it happen That’s according to a study by University of Montana economist John Duffield, who notes the trickle-down effect could actually be worth twice that.

As wolf watching became a sensation in Yellowstone amassing a rapidly growing army of adherents, some rushed to tout the alleged ecological benefits of wolves. On YouTube, a video titled “How Wolves Change Rivers” and homemade spinoffs have been watched more than 100 million times.

Scientists long surmised that by restoring wolves, as the vital missing link extinguished in a less-informed ecological era, balance and harmony to the food chain—the so-called “trophic cascade”— would be restored too. The problem of “too many” elk populating Yellowstone’s Northern Range where heavy browsing severely impacted aspen trees and willow in the absence of wolves would be remedied setting off a positive chain reaction, according to the video.

Wolves have knocked down a coyote population blamed for intense predation on the park’s small pronghorn herd. By reducing elk numbers, aspen trees have rejuvenated and willow abundance is returning, bolstering beaver (that eat its branches) and they would create jams and more wetland habitat.

Both Mech and Smith, the latter of whom assigned experts to intensely review the data, said not so fast—indeed wolves are causing ripple effects but not enough to justify the idyllic narrative in the YouTube video. To state it simply, nature is complicated.

This doesn’t mean the insights now emerging aren’t astounding and that the dividends aren’t dramatic. The elk population has the richest carnivore community in North America and is holding its own, Smith says After the elk population of the Northern Range fell from a high of around 19,000 elk to around 4,000 in recent years it has grown to around 7,000, according to surveys carried out by the state of Montana and Yellowstone personnel. Simultaneously, the original wolf population there, supported by prolific elk numbers and reaching 174, has dipped and resettled to around 100 in 10 packs, existing with a sort of dynamic equilibrium.

A lively debate exists among scientists. “The evidence shows elk do change their behavior in the presence of wolves and it involves both congregating in larger group size and adopting different ways to avoid wolves,” Smith says.

Others have argued that wolf presence has resulted in elk not using prime-favored foraging areas. Some claim the combination of having to be on the move and poorer access to nutritious edibles has negatively affected cow elk pregnancy rates. And yet, data shows a high pregnancy rate in cow elk. Ironically, some ranchers now complain that too many wapiti are wintering in their pastures.

Abby Nelson, wolf management specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, inspects a legally harvested 4-year-old female wolf taken by a hunter just beyond the Northeast Entrance of Yellowstone National Park in November 2014. Photo by Ronan Donovan

Mike Phillips is finishing his final year in the Montana Legislature after getting term-limited out from serving in both the House and Senate. Notably, he came to the region on a job assignment—overseeing wolf recovery in Yellowstone. Earlier, Phillips had been a senior management specialist for the Fish and Wildlife Service working on red wolf management in North Carolina. He had the position in Yellowstone 25 years ago that Smith now holds.

I asked him what’s been most significant as he looks back. “That’s simple,” Phillips said. “It’s their ability to inspire changes in thinking. Wolves have always been about more than wolves and Yellowstone about more than the park itself.”

Phillips today is helping spearhead an effort to restore wolves to Colorado by putting the issue on the ballot and he’s using the lessons learned to debunk the same kind of resistance he encountered in Yellowstone. “The Yellowstone wolf story has a lot to teach people,” he says. “So much of our poor treatment of the natural world has been caused by ignorance. But we can do better and this proves it.”

Abby Nelson, a wolf management specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, has seen it all. “From my perspective living with wolves is 90 percent people and engaging with them where they are at and understanding the constraints facing those who deal with wildlife conflicts,” Nelson says. All of it revolves around a bottom line that, especially for mom-and-pop ranchers, can be thin.

Many people, including wolf advocates, might not fully appreciate how beneficial it is to all to help keep rural ranchers and farmers on the land. Their properties provide free habitat for wildlife and open space that contribute to inspiring views for all around.

Nelson has found that many ranchers have tolerance for wolves in the northern valleys that spiral out of Yellowstone—the Paradise, Madison and Boulder—so long as wolf packs don’t become cattle and sheep killers. Some will even admit candidly they kind of enjoy seeing wolves around but if leaders of the pack start keying in on livestock instead of wildlife, then producers want swift remedies. And that’s where she comes in.

If non-lethal deterrents such as stringing flag-like fladry and electric fencing around cows at calving time, employing loud horns and flashing lights with motion detectors don’t work, decisions have to be made. Either the state or agents affiliated with the federal agency Wildlife Services might be called in to kill wolves.

“We need to respect and work with ranchers,” Nelson says. “That’s how you build tolerance.” The estimated size of the wolf population in Montana is 800, she says, and the average number of wolves killed over the last six years annually is between 230 and 260.

“I thought that wolves showing up would be a major nightmare but it really hasn’t been. We can live with them.” – Wyoming Rancher Albert Sommers

Since wolves were removed from federal protection, the Fish and Wildlife Service no longer assembles a comprehensive report but the last one prepared in 2014 by the person who succeeded Ed Bangs, Mike Jimenez, is instructive because the numbers haven’t fluctuated much. He wrote that there were an estimated 1,800 wolves comprising roughly 313 packs right in the heart of Western cattle country.

Wolves account for about 1 percent of total livestock losses, according to federal ag statistics. Noteworthy is that only 62 of the 300-plus wolf packs were involved in livestock depredation and the majority of those cases involved only a handful of livestock depredations at most. “What it means is that four of every five packs are existing without incident,” Jimenez noted, suggesting that in the realm of perception for some, the opposite is true.

Lethal control of wolves outside of Yellowstone and Grand Teton was always part of the deal in bringing them back though it still doesn’t sit well with some environmentalists. For as many wolves as there are today live in the West, at least that many have been killed, mostly in lethal removals but also by hunters and trappers. The number of dead wolves exceeds the number of cattle that have been taken and millions of dollars have been spent in control actions, federal and state officials told me.

Generating huge amounts of controversy, inflamed by social media, the deaths of park wolves with radio collars around their necks have been important parts of research in Yellowstone where they live most of their lives.

When those animals have wandered across the park’s invisible line some have been shot and what’s especially galling for advocates is that those wolves, because they spent a lot of time inside the park within eyesight of people, did not associate danger with humans.

Regarding the impacts of wolves on big game, a reference point can be found at Isle Royale National Park in the Upper Midwest where research has been ongoing for more than half a century, ever since a few lobos crossed the frozen ice of Lake Superior from the mainland and remained on the isle, which had significant numbers of moose

Over decades, wolf numbers rose and fell, correlating to the size of the moose population.

Based on the old premise that wolves will prey upon wildlife populations until they are destroyed, one would think the wolves on Isle Royale would have wiped out moose. But it didn’t happen that way; in fact, wolf numbers tumbled on Isle Royale necessitating a wolf reintroduction in recent years.

In Yellowstone, emerging research does not implicate wolves as being the most formidable predators of elk. Field data shows that cougars, as ambush predators, are far more dangerous. During spring, meanwhile, grizzly bears take more elk calves. “When wolf reintroduction began, there were assumptions that major predation would be a wolf-driven dynamic, but it’s not,” Smith says.

Tellingly in the northern Rockies, the vast majority of elk hunting units with wolf presence are at or above population objectives, state wildlife officials say. There are more elk in the West today than in at least 140 years.

“This was something done for nature but in fact it has been a gift to our species, demonstrating what we are capable of when naysayers claimed it couldn’t be done.”

Although some ranchers, mostly sheep producers, have at times sustained losses of dozens of animals in a short time, such occurrences are in fact rare, doubly so given that wolf control measures have been swift. At the meeting in Alder, Montana last fall, Wyoming rancher Albert Sommers appeared as a special guest. Sommers, also a state legislator from Pinedale and a member of the Upper Green River Valley livestock grazing association, offered a confession. “I thought that wolves showing up would be a major nightmare but it really hasn’t been. We can live with them. A bigger issue is grizzlies,” he said. Other Montana ranchers echoed the sentiment.

Looking back, David Mech contends that reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone was the right thing to do. “Society should have brought wolves back and this should apply to more than charismatic megafuna but anything we’ve extirpated where places exist that you can do it,” he said. “It doesn’t mean it will be popular but the important thing is having a dialogue, using facts where you can, listening to peoples’ concerns and addressing them.”

As for his protégée Doug Smith, he’s had an epiphany. “I’ve flipped my thinking on why all of this matters. I said 25 years ago that the reason to restore wolves was purely ecological. This was something done for nature but in fact it has been a gift to our species, demonstrating what we are capable of when naysayers claimed it couldn’t be done,” he said. “We— humans—have been the biggest beneficiary. I think it’s a sign of hope. If we can do it with wolves, we can do it with a lot of issues that divide us.”

Todd Wilkinson, who lives in Bozeman, is a western correspondent for National Geographic and The Guardian, and is founder of Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org), a nonprofit, public-interest journalism site devoted to exploring the intersection of people and nature in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. His column, The New West, also appears weekly in the Explore Big Sky newspaper.