SHORTLY AFTER nightfall on January 12, 1995, the biologist Doug Smith strapped on snowshoes and hiked to Crystal Creek, in Yellowstone National Park. A day earlier, eight wild gray wolves had been flown from Canada to Great Falls, Montana, then trucked 250 miles to the park. A local school had dismissed early, so that children could watch as the predators, kenneled in a trailer, passed under the iconic Roosevelt Arch—becoming the first known wolves to enter the park in the six decades since the species had been eradicated in the West.
The animals were a crucial part of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, an ambitious reintroduction plan nearly 20 years in the making. Smith helped to lead the project. Once he and a handful of park employees reached Crystal Creek, they moved into position to free the wolves into acclimation pens. “I was a few feet from them,” Smith recalls of the moment the kennels were open. “No bars between us.” At first, though, only one wolf would come out—in stark contrast, in his view, to the man-eaters that reintroduction opponents had made wolves out to be.
The animals’ apprehension proved temporary. Twenty-five years later, the Yellowstone Wolf Project stands as a watershed moment in U.S. wildlife conservation. Some 80 wolves, in nine packs, now live primarily within Yellowstone Park, making it one of the best places in the world to see and study the animals. And as the park’s population has grown, so has the nation’s. The Northern Rockies alone boast roughly 2,000 wolves; the Western Great Lakes have another 4,200. “The biggest sign of success for wolves in the West is that they’re boring,” says Ed Bangs, the former wolf-recovery coordinator for U.S. Fish & Wildlife. “Bring up wolves in a bar in Montana today, and people just shrug, then look for someone else to talk to.”
The Yellowstone project paved the way for a wider acceptance of predators, in part by illuminating their role in a well-balanced ecosystem. Between 1995 and 2004, wolves contributed to a 50 percent drop in Yellowstone’s overabundant elk herd. The decline led to vegetation regrowth and to cleaner streams. Cougars returned; beaver and bear numbers bounced back. Wolves weren’t solely responsible for the changes. Still, Bangs says, “I go into parts of Yellowstone today, and they look very different than they did 30 years ago.”
Prior to the reintroductions, ranchers had worried, for good reason, that wolves would hurt their bottom lines. Several states introduced livestock reimbursement programs, which paid ranchers for cattle and sheep killed by wolves. Smith and Bangs both agree, though, that the broad acceptance of wolves owes just as much to ranchers’ being permitted to kill problematic animals—perhaps the project’s greatest, and most unlikely, legacy.
In 2009, when the Northern Rockies’ wolf population was taken off the endangered-species list, Montana and Idaho held wolf-hunting seasons for the first time in decades, despite considerable controversy. But allowing hunting “buys social tolerance,” Smith explains. Westerners are more apt to accept a predator if they can put a few down. Even so, Wyoming rancher Albert Sommers says that each year, he loses about 10 percent of his calves to predators, which is hard to accept. That said, he adds, “Now we have a harder time with bears than we do with wolves, frankly.”
Wolves haven’t escaped all debate. It says something, though, that the president of the Farm Bureau, which initially opposed the Yellowstone Wolf Project, last year called the gray wolf’s recovery “a conservation success story.”
Doug Smith, for his part, has had to learn to live with wolves, too. He likes to hunt elk, and now, with Greater Yellowstone’s population back in check, he has to hike farther to get one. He doesn’t mind, though. Not if it means he gets to cross wolf tracks in the snow.
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