Lobos at Twenty
Wolves have restored wildness to Greater Yellowstone, but human attitudes die hard toward the iconic predator.
By Todd Wilkinson
NO ONE KNOWS for sure what brought down the 1,800-pound bison bull. The strapping behemoth was dead, its mortal end likely hastened by canid fangs applied to jugular vein. When Doug Smith arrived on the scene last August in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, a battle was already ensuing between two of the national park’s most formidable and charismatic predators hungry for a meal.
As Smith describes it, a sow grizzly bear and triplet cubs had moved in first on the fresh carcass. Rising on her haunches, whiffing the air, the mother bruin took note of a six-hundred-pound male griz rapidly closing in across the sagebrush. Circling, too, were gray wolves—members of the Junction Butte pack—howling as they dodged the bears, and sending ravens and a pair of bald eagles scattering.
The commotion attracted a large crowd of human onlookers along the road one hundred yards distant. Even Smith, Yellowstone’s senior wolf biologist, couldn’t help but marvel at the scene. “This,” he thought to himself, “is the picture of wildness that America’s first national park is supposed to be in the twenty-first century.”
In fact, considering that all three species—bison, grizzlies, and lobos—had been nearly annihilated in the Lower 48 states only a few generations earlier, he called their convergence a miracle.
Remembering a brutally cold day in January twenty years earlier, Smith started to feel butterflies in his gut. One of the grandest achievements in U.S. wildlife conservation history, the restoration of wolves to an iconic ecosystem from which they had been exterminated, almost never happened.
In 1995, the then-young field man had walked behind a group of notable bureaucrats, which included Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the late U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Mollie Beattie, and Yellowstone Superintendent Michael V. Finley, as they ceremoniously carried crates of transplanted Canadian wolves to holding pens prior to their release in the Lamar Valley. It ended a sixty-year absence for Canis lupus.
Some thirty-one wolves were turned loose into Yellowstone and another thirty-five into wilderness areas of central Idaho over the course of two successive winters. Between then and now, offspring of those wolves have
lourished in the Northern Rockies and begun to recolonize in Washington and Oregon, surpassing even the wildest expectations of the architects who brought them back.
“The public forgets,” Smith says, “and new generations of park visitors often take it for granted, that wolves not very long ago were gone from this place. Grizzlies had become rare. What gave wolves and bears a second chance wasn’t an accident. It involved a conscious decision on the part of citizens, government agencies, and elected leaders who said yes to their recovery.”
THE U.S. IS a country that loves commemorating milestones. This winter, the twentieth anniversary of wolf restoration in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a region that encompasses all of Jackson Hole, represents a profound moment of reflection.
The events that led up to wolf reintroduction were both dramatic and controversial. In the months right before reintroduction, Renée Askins, the founder of Jackson-based the Wolf Fund, received mailed death threats and nasty letters in response to her wolf advocacy. (She published some of the hate mail in her book, Shadow Mountain: A Memoir of Wolves, a Woman, and the Wild.) Smith says, “Those who tried to stand in the way weren’t just saying no to wolves. They were saying, ‘Hell, no! Not in this lifetime.’ ” Robert Fanning, who was involved with a group called Friends of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd, called wolf reintroduction “the greatest wildlife disaster” of the last century. He claimed wolves would devastate all prey species and that Yellowstone would turn into a “biological wasteland.”
Twenty years on, “some still aren’t very happy about it,” says Smith. There are alleged exchanges of death threats between “wolf lovers” and “wolf haters.” Still, there’s an undeniable silver lining: Wolves, against long odds, are again embedded in the tapestry of the wild West.
Mike Jimenez, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s wolf coordinator for the Northern Rockies, has been on the front lines, spending his entire professional career—nearly thirty years—studying wolves as a government biologist. His connection to the animals began in the mid-1980s when researchers were tracking wolves that naturally dispersed southward out of Canada into Glacier National Park. “I remember when there were no wolves in the Rockies south of Canada. If you had told me twenty years ago that we would have 320 packs and somewhere around 2,000 wolves in 2015, I wouldn’t have believed you,” he says.
During the last decade, wolves have wandered on the butte above the National Museum of Wildlife Art, passed through South Park south of the town of Jackson, and been spotted in the Cache Creek drainage east of town. They’ve denned on the National Elk Refuge just beyond the northern town limits and, more recently, in the southwest corner of Grand Teton National Park just off the Moose-Wilson Road. Save for regular sightings by wildlife watchers and the sounds of night howls and tracks left on the ground, they’ve had a mostly discreet and innocuous presence in the valley, which has only added to their mystique.
“Oh, wolves are around, and they will follow wildlife—their elk, moose, and deer prey—that dwell in residential subdivisions, but let’s be clear: We should not have expectations that it’s OK for wolves to inhabit in close quarters the places where people live,” Jimenez says, noting that he caught flack for lethally removing a few wolves that were spending time in the Jackson suburbs.
“Humans and wolves can do fine coexisting—at a distance. Wolves, for the most part, don’t represent a danger to us, but they are wild animals and should be treated as such.” A couple of salient facts: No person in the Lower 48 has ever been attacked and killed by a healthy wild wolf, and no farmer or rancher has been run out of business because of lobo attacks on their livestock.
RENÉE ASKINS EARNED a place in the hearts of many as “the wolf lady” of Yellowstone’s modern age. An ardent conservationist, she founded the Wolf Fund in 1986. Its singular ad hoc mission was bringing wolves back to Yellowstone. She promised the Wolf Fund would close the second wolves were re-established.
Recalling a long list of characters who played pivotal roles in making reintroduction happen, Askins says several park officials, including former superintendent Bob Barbee, science chief John Varley, and naturalist-interpreter Norm Bishop, risked their jobs by continuing to advocate for wolves despite fierce political pressure brought against them and orders that they couldn’t promote wolf reintroduction—orders they defied.
Following the writing of a lengthy environmental impact statement, hundreds of contentious public meetings, and collectively millions of public comments submitted—the vast majority supporting reintroduction—the final pieces of reintroduction involved finding wolves in British Columbia and then navigating a gauntlet of legal challenges.
Askins was there at Roosevelt Arch in 1995 to welcome wolves passing beneath the famous portal, the homecoming accompanied by an armed escort from law enforcement that had been warned about possible troublemakers. “My favorite moment was watching all the Gardiner schoolkids, festooned in vibrant-colored mittens, rainbow snow boots, their scarves fluttering like bright prayer flags, as they gathered along the roadside to wave wolves in,” Askins recalls. “I was told there were some displeased teachers that had resisted, but the kids charged out to line the route, oblivious to any adult trepidation.”
Like biologist Smith, she was afraid that a last-minute court ruling would delay reintroduction or halt it. Many worried that wolves, confined to small cages, might not endure the journey. “There were some exceptionally tense hours while the Farm Bureau sued for an injunction to prevent the wolves from being released from their portable kennels into the park holding pens,” Askins recalls. “Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt, there for the celebration, instead found himself speculating to the press about whether Yellowstone’s first wolves would arrive not in kennels but coffins.”
That didn’t happen. An Interior Department attorney’s approval, upheld by a federal judge, cleared the way over yowls of protest and predictions the western way of life was about to collapse.
At first, wolves occupied and thrived in the park and then in remote corners of the region away from people. L. David Mech, considered America’s foremost wolf authority who is best known for fieldwork on Isle Royale in Lake Superior and overseeing the recovery of wolves in Minnesota, knew the real test would come when wolves left the safe confines of Yellowstone. It didn’t take long. The thirty-one lobos released in Yellowstone swelled to more than four times as many in the first few years. Within five years, wolves began inhabiting places where rural people and their livestock live.
HOW WILDLIFE ARE managed in Yellowstone National Park—where hunting isn’t allowed, there is no livestock, and preservation is the objective—is very different from the reality outside the park. “My colleagues with other agencies jokingly say that I work in a wildlife country club,” Yellowstone’s Smith says today.
“I agree with Doug that there is tremendous value to having places like Yellowstone where wildlife doesn’t have to be subjected to constant and, in some cases, heavy-handed human management,” Mech says. “But the fact is, the majority of terrain inhabited by wolves in the West is found outside national parks. There, wolves fall under some form of management. The question is, ‘What kind?’ ”
Not long after wolves were first removed from protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2008, a group of Wyomingites trespassed on a ranch, used snowmobiles to chase down wolves, and killed them. An anti-wolf Montanan posted instructions for how to poison wolves on his website. And, in Idaho, a legislator told a Boise-based conservationist that she shouldn’t testify at a wolf hearing in the state capital because harm might come to her. In autumn 2013, a Wyoming hunter shot a wolf in the predator zone south of Jackson, where it was then legal to do so, strapped the carcass to the top of his vehicle, and parked on the Town Square. The Idaho Legislature in 2014 authorized spending $400,000 (plus another $200,000 provided by the federal animal control agency Wildlife Services) to try and aggressively reduce wolf numbers in the state down to their absolute minimum.
Hunters, too, have been harassed and threatened with harm. (Since wolves’ removal from the endangered species list it has been legal to hunt them, although how, when, and why differ by state.) Just as this story was being completed, a green activist entity calling itself the Yellowstone Wolf Patrol issued a press release vowing to disrupt legal hunts of wolves in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness of Montana. “We are not opposed to Montana residents filling their freezers with elk, but the wolves were here first and deserve protection from recreational killing,” says Patrol member Julie Henry.
IN THE WEST, wolves are different than in Minnesota, where they were never entirely extirpated, and Wisconsin and Michigan, where the population rebuilt from neighboring animals. “You don’t have to agree with them, but it’s important to understand the perception that people out here have,” Jimenez says. “Wolves were completely gone and then brought back into areas where they weren’t wanted. Getting rid of wolves initially was a source of cultural pride. I often hear stories from people who claim it was their grandfather who killed the last wild wolf in their state. They resent the federal government because we went to Canada, got wolves, and dumped them in their backyards. They’re angry with environmentalists because they pushed to make reintroduction happen.”
Lingering, Jimenez adds, is an impression that the federal government lied about how many wolves would be re-established and that the rules of the game were changed. Jackson Hole’s own John Turner, who grew up at the Triangle X Ranch in Grand Teton National Park, was a leader in the Wyoming Senate and went on to become national director of the Fish and Wildlife Service under President George Herbert Walker Bush.
Turner believes in using the Endangered Species Act to restore species, but he argues that the number of wolves on the ground today far exceeds what was originally proposed. He believes western states were double-crossed.
Initially, the objective was to have thirty packs and around 300 wolves total in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho—ten packs, each comprised of roughly ten wolves, per state. Within half a decade, the regional wolf population blew through those numbers, a biological response to both exceptional vacant habitat and an abundance of natural prey. To avoid having wolves relisted as an endangered species today, states must maintain a minimum of 150 wolves and fifteen breeding pairs (which form the nucleus of wolf packs).
Today, there are roughly 2,000 wolves in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2014 stated it is confident that even with states controlling wolf numbers through hunting and management aimed at livestock protection, the species’ population will remain above 1,000.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, also a Fish and Wildlife Service director (she served under Bill Clinton), is today the president of Defenders of Wildlife. She has a different take from Turner’s. Clark says the population targets that preceded reintroduction were intended to be floors for considering minimum population viability, not ceilings. She is appalled that wolves, as part of an agreement brokered with the Fish and Wildlife Service to facilitate their removal from federal protection, were allowed to be classified as predators over a vast majority of Wyoming—enabling people to kill them any time of year, at any time of day, and for any reason. That liberal provision is now under a legal challenge that, in September 2014, resulted in Wyoming wolves being put back under the umbrella of federal protection. How it gets resolved is, at this point, unclear. “Never before have Americans been stakeholders in the recovery of a species only to watch a state take over management and immediately start treating the animal as disrespectfully as vermin the moment it was delisted,” Clark says. “It goes against the spirit of what wildlife recovery means, especially when many wolves are being killed simply for existing, and are not causing serious impacts to livestock or to huntable game species.”
In neighboring Montana and Idaho, wolves are instead classified statewide as a game species (rather than as a predator). That means their harvest, whether through hunting or trapping, is based on allowable limits.
OVER THE YEARS, I’ve had discussions with many different ranchers in the tri-state area and two of the most thoughtful were Wyoming cattlemen Bob Lucas and John Robinette, both of whom run cows on ranches in the vicinity of Togwotee Pass near Dubois.
Wolves haven’t been as bad as they’re portrayed to be nor are they as benign as wolf-adoring environmentalists contend, Lucas says. Most mom-and-pop ranchers operate on narrow bottom lines, and anything that eats into their profit margins is a concern.
Robinette and his wife, Deb, have had wolves and grizzlies literally at the back door of their home in the Dunoir River Valley. They’ve lost beloved pets to both predators, and they’ve had concerns about their grandchildren’s safety. But they’re not fearmongers. When they hear claims that schoolchildren waiting for buses in rural areas need to have protective shelters available to shield them from possible bear and wolf attacks, they roll their eyes.
Both cowboy-boot- and jean-wearing wildlife photographers, the couple’s preference has been to find ways to deter lobos and bears from getting into their cattle without using bullets. They’ve spent many long nights vigilantly looking after calves in the pasture, employing electric fences and flags, and flashing siren lights. In one incident, government agents came in and lethally removed wolves, against the wishes of the Robinettes, yet it was the Robinettes who received a nasty telephone call and death threat from a person who was upset that wolves had been killed.
Before Jimenez was tapped to oversee wolf management for the federal government in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho a few years ago, he was based in Jackson Hole. His job was to resolve wolf conflicts in Wyoming, which were mostly with ranchers. As part of his duties, Jimenez killed hundreds of wolves that had killed livestock and pets. Environmentalists accused him of destroying too many wolves, and ranchers condemned him for not felling enough. “I’ve kind of gotten used to it,” he says. “Being pilloried by both sides goes with the terrain.”
“Part of this is an urban/rural divide issue in which people on ranches and farms don’t feel like their concerns are being heard or acknowledged by pro-wolf people from cities who don’t have to live with the animals. They’re concerned about their own survival,” Jimenez says. “It just seems like some of the hardcore conservationists are waiting for hardcore anti-wolf people to come around to their positions. They say, ‘If only ranchers learned to like wolves.’ But I can tell you that it ain’t ever gonna happen—certainly not until rural people feel respected. People need to talk to each other more.”
Of the 320 packs in the Northern Rockies, Jimenez points out that only 19 percent were involved in predation incidents on livestock. “Many of those incidents didn’t involve multiple predations; they involved only one calf or lamb being killed,” he says. “Most wolves are not causing problems for ranchers and for those that do, those animals that are part of the 19 percent, we deal with them quickly.” Across the three states comprising the Northern Rockies, total confirmed depredations by wolves in 2013 included 143 cattle, 476 sheep, 6 dogs, 1 horse, 3 ponies, and 3 goats. Between 2008 and 2012, an average of 199 cattle depredations and 397 sheep depredations occurred annually.
“Although confirmed depredations result in a comparatively small proportion of all livestock losses, wolf damage can be significant to some livestock producers in areas where wolves are present,” the report stated. Compared to the thousands of cattle and sheep that die each year from weather, disease, accidents, eating poisonous plants, and coyotes, losses caused by wolves are, relatively speaking, nominal, yet they accrue a disproportionate amount of blame, says Carter Niemeyer, a former federal depredation expert and author of a book titled Wolfer.
OFTEN FORGOTTEN IN the current discussion of wolf reintroduction is context. In ecology, there is a phenomenon called top-down trophic cascades—essentially rippling impacts that occur in landscapes when key animals, like wolves, are removed from the top of the food chain. After wolves disappeared from Yellowstone in the 1930s, elk numbers in subsequent decades exploded.
By the late 1980s, half a decade prior to wolf reintroduction, the number of wapiti on Yellowstone’s Northern Range—often described as an American Serengeti because of the diversity of large mammals there—reached a whopping 19,000. Range scientists from Montana State University’s College of Agriculture declared, “There were too many elk.” They said Yellowstone’s grasslands were severely overgrazed and that aspen, willow, and cottonwood trees were imperiled because of foraging wapiti. They accused park managers of being inept. State game officials in Montana responded with actions that raised eyebrows, initiating late-season hunts targeting pregnant cow elk to control the population.
After wolves were reintroduced, the elk population tumbled dramatically but not dangerously. Today in Jackson Hole, where the National Elk Refuge and state of Wyoming operate twenty-three feeding stations in winter that nourish thousands of elk, wapiti numbers, even with wolves, are—with only a few exceptions—at or above management objectives. Researchers across the ecosystem note that fewer elk are resulting in more aspen, willow, and cottonwoods. And with more willow, there are more beavers, which, in turn, create wetlands that benefit moose and songbirds and other marsh-dependent species. It is hypothesized that rivers will flow healthier. Because wolves also kill coyotes, which prey on pronghorn fawns, conjecture is that antelope numbers will grow. And with fewer coyotes, which are huge consumers of rodents, it is suggested that mouse- and ground-squirrel-eating raptors are more abundant.
Mech guffaws at a popular video posted on YouTube titled “How Wolves Change Rivers” that went viral via social media and has been viewed more than five million times. It portrays a suite of benefits that wolves have allegedly brought to the ecosystem. Mech says the video both oversimplifies and exaggerates them.
Wolf-adoring conservationists, he claims, have popularized the image of a “sanctified wolf” that can do no wrong. In a scientific paper, Mech observed, “The wolf is neither a saint nor a sinner except to those who want to make it so.” Beyond that, it’s complicated.
Attitudes about wolves divide across often simplistic beliefs tied to simplistic proposals for how to fix what are considered simplistic problems that aren’t nearly as simplistic as they appear. Wolf effects, Mech says, will play out over decades and will constantly evolve. Elk hunters who malign wolves ignore the natural history that wapiti owe their power and grace to millennia of wolf predation.
In recent years, as scientists predicted, the number of wolves inside Yellowstone has declined, achieving a sort of “dynamic equilibrium” with existing prey. As the elk population settled to a lower level, so too did the number of wolves, Smith explains. “I expect that in the coming decades we’ll see elk numbers rise slightly and fall slightly, and there will be a corresponding response in wolves.”
It’s true: Some local wapiti populations in the Northern Rockies, subjected to wolf predation, have suffered significant losses. Biologists, however, attribute their declines not just to wolves, but to predation also by grizzlies and mountain lions. That triumvirate of carnivores isn’t the only culprit either, experts say. Also necessary to factor in are hard winters, extended drought conditions affecting natural forage and elk reproduction, as well as the effects of liberal winter hunting seasons that targeted female elk. Some outfitters who have loudly asserted at public meetings that wolves destroyed their business operate websites advertising high client success rates for their bull-elk hunts that cost several thousand dollars apiece.
ASKINS SAYS THAT distressing to her is how slow culture can be to change and how society arcs on an endless swinging pendulum struggling to find equilibrium. “What bothers me? The radio collars still being put on wolves to track them for research purposes, the traps, the ignorance, the hyperbole, the rhetoric, and the vitriol that is the product and terrain of bureaucrats, pandering politicians, and, too often in the West, wannabe cowboys. Against that type of foolishness, even the gods fight in vain.”
The conflict revolving around wolves has never been between man and wolf, Askins says; it has always been, and will continue to be, a war between the parts of the human psyche that struggle to recognize and embrace who and what we are as humans. “The wolf, going back as far as the origins of language, has been the creature upon which we project the evil, the darkness, and the wild nature, which we are unable, or unwilling, to accept as our own,” she says. “The story of wolf reintroduction in Greater Yellowstone is an archetypal tale, enacted on the unparalleled, pristine stage of our oldest national park and its surrounding public lands.”
Making good on her promise that the Wolf Fund would end when wolves hit the ground, Askins closed its doors on that day in January twenty years ago and then retreated from public view. She and her husband, the legendary folk singer Tom Rush, had a daughter, and they raised her in New England. But Askins recalls a sabbatical they took back in the West during the winter of 2007-08. They stayed at a home near the southern border of Grand Teton National Park.
An injured bull elk, left haggard by the elements, lumbered into the yard and died. Eagles, ravens, foxes, and coyotes helped themselves to the carcass. And then, as Askins recalls, savoring the thought, came an unexpected gift.
“A wolf showed up at about 2 one morning,” she says. “A second about four days later. Nature took its course, and soon there was the genesis of a breeding pair, frolicking, feeding, and chasing ravens and coyotes not fifty feet from the house. A third wolf joined the pair, and my daughter got her first extended course in wolf ethology, watching three uncollared wolves play, mate, chase, and sleep in her front yard, not even needing binoculars or a scope. They came and went for several months, without incident or another human soul noticing.”
With humans marking the twentieth anniversary of wolves’ return to Yellowstone, what’s the message Jimenez wants to convey? That this time around C. lupus isn’t going away. As contentious as the topic of the animals can be, people have become smarter about coexistence. Having wolves back is momentous, but it’s not a big deal. We just need to keep being continually reminded.
Why did wolves disappear from Yellowstone in the first place?
Shortly after Yellowstone’s designation as a national park (the first national park in the world) in 1872, the government, prodded by ranchers and farmers recently settled outside the park’s boundaries, took the view that wolves were varmints. Their habit of killing prey like elk and deer, both considered “more desirable” species than wolves, and also of sometimes going after livestock was deemed “wanton destruction” of those animals.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Canis lupus were poisoned and hunted. Even wolves inside Yellowstone were eradicated: At least 136 were killed between 1914 and 1926. By the 1940s, wolf packs were rarely sighted in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Wolves weren’t just poisoned and hunted in this area; by the mid-1900s, they had been effectively extirpated from the Lower 48. In 1974, gray wolves were listed as an endangered species in the Lower 48 and Mexico.