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August 1999
A Disturbance in the Valley: Wolves in the Northern Rockies

By Martin Rowe


It is dawn in early June in the Lamar Valley in the northeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. The bison, elk, deer, and moose have come down to the valley to eat the succulent grass before the heat of the day and the summer months force them to move up the mountains where it is cooler. The expected rains have already begun, joining the snowmelt that has swollen the rivers in this lush watershed. The newly born young of the bison, elk, and deer are taking their first tentative steps, accompanied by their mothers and the watchful males of the tightly knit herds. Bald eagles perch on the numerous lodgepole pines that are the dominant arboreal species in this dry climate, 7,500 feet above sea level. Along the roadside stand wildlife watchers and their telescopes, scanning the peaceful scene before them and waiting.

They’re looking for a mild disturbance—a slight shifting of the herds, the raising of heads staring intently in one direction, perhaps a fluttering of ravens. This is the most vulnerable time for the herbivores, as their young cannot yet outrun the predators who know that this is one of the best places to catch the vulnerable. Soon enough, there is a disturbance. Although the bison and elk herds seem to tolerate the presence of predators, they make sure the latter do not get too close, nonchalantly watching them as they move on the periphery of the herd. There is also a disturbance in the wildlife watchers. Could it be him? They hadn’t seen him for a year. He had disappeared from the Lamar Valley; perhaps, they had wondered, he had joined another group or been killed. But the dark-hued markings confirmed other recent sightings: the gray wolf known as 104 was definitely back.

Four Years of Wolves

People have been able to see wolves such as 104 in Yellowstone since January 12, 1995 when 15 wolves were reintroduced into the Park after, it is believed, an absence of almost 70 years Once spread across the entire North American continent, canis lupus (the gray or Timber wolf) was virtually extinct in the lower 48 states by the 1930s. In spite of this, pockets of these tenacious survivalists remain in the northern Rockies, northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan and in the southwest. A related species, the red wolf or canis rufus, is being reintroduced to the southeast, while there are plans to reintroduce the gray into northern Maine [see sidebar] and the Adirondacks.

Since 1995, the number of wolves in Yellowstone has grown to over one hundred individuals, aided by further reintroduction of wolves and the fact that the females often produce four to eight cubs in each litter. Nevertheless, the reintroduction of wolves continues to be a controversial issue—and not just to those who didn’t believe that wolves should ever have come back from the brink of extinction. After the reintroduction began, the American Farm Bureau Federation brought a suit against Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and the reintroduction program, stating that the program endangered the livestock of its members and that wolves had never been eradicated from the Yellowstone area and thus shouldn’t have been reintroduced. In late 1997, U.S. District Court Judge William Downes declared the reintroduction program illegal, a decision that was then immediately appealed by Predator Project, Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation. The hearing of this appeal took place at the end of last month.

For Tom Skeele, Executive Director of Predator Project—an environmental group that works to conserve predators and their habitats, which was initially opposed to the wolf reintroduction—the issue was not that wolves should not be in Yellowstone, but whether they would be protected once they were reintroduced. The wolves were reintroduced under the special designation “nonessential experimental” of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This means that animals, generally considered endangered or threatened under the Act, are reintroduced into areas with fewer restrictions than populations listed as endangered. For organizations such as Defenders of Wildlife or National Wildlife Federation (NWF) the designation was necessary. According to NWF: “The ‘experimental’ designation for wolves in Yellowstone and central Idaho [where wolves were also reintroduced] played a critical role in reassuring ranchers and resource industries that wolves would not unduly affect their livelihoods.... Wolf reintroduction would not happen without the public support made possible by the experimental designation.”

One of the problems, however, said Skeele in an interview with Satya, is that once the wolves leave the Park they can be killed—they get caught in traps set for coyotes, they are shot and trapped legally after conflicts with livestock, or shot illegally. “All of the wolves [around 25 to 30] that have been killed in the last three years in these ways were killed outside the Park,” he commented. Skeele also wondered whether the fact that wolf numbers may be starting to plateau in Yellowstone signaled that the available habitat within the Park boundaries may already have been saturated and that this was why wolves were leaving the Park. According to a recent report by Predator Project: “Protection of wolves and their habitat quickly declines outside of our national parks and wilderness areas, which in turn limits wolf numbers and distribution. This is because wolf numbers are self-regulating within a given area, so the core recovery areas are limited in the numbers of wolves they can support. Just four years after the reintroduction, Yellowstone Park may be already at capacity for wolves.” (Billings Gazette, 3/1/99).

Skeele is concerned that because of this habitat disruption, there will be an island population of wolves in Yellowstone, unable to join with wolves in central Idaho and/or northwest Montana (including Glacier National Park), and create a contiguous, breeding population. For Skeele, the issue also extends beyond wolves. He agrees that the wolf reintroduction program has been successful [see sidebar], and admits that wolves under the “nonessential experimental” status in Yellowstone and central Idaho are doing better than fully protected wolves in northern Montana. Yet, recent attempts to reintroduce the Mexican gray wolf into New Mexico and Arizona have met with mixed results. According to the World Society for the Protection of Animals, five of the 15 wolves released into the Apache National Forest “have been illegally shot to death, two are missing and presumed dead, and another has died of unknown causes.” Furthermore, what works for wolves does not work for other threatened or endangered animals—such as bear and lynx—who emphatically do need Federal protection, since they are not as hardy, do not breed as fast, and require a more intact ecosystem to survive. There are also plans to reintroduce the grizzly bear into central Idaho under the “nonessential experimental” status.

As might be expected, the exaggerated fears of cattle ranchers that wolves would prey on their livestock rather than on the populations of elk, deer, bison, or moose have not been realized. By the end of 1997, wolves had killed only 50 cattle and about 200 sheep, while a year later the total loss of money to livestock owners was less than $70,000. Not only was this loss less than one-third of expected losses (and only two percent of all reported livestock losses due to predators), but it was less than half a percent of all livestock loss due to starvation, cold winters, or disease in the region. Furthermore, Defenders of Wildlife compensated ranchers for all losses due to wolf predation.

From Least to Most Popular

The wolves’ tenacity and capacity to travel has in fact created one of the controversies. Not only did wolves migrate south by themselves from Canada into Glacier National Park in northern Montana, but by the end of 1998 they were in the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, and were expanding from central Idaho to Oregon, the Bitterroot Valley in western Montana, and elsewhere. Currently, there are 100 or so wolves in the Yellowstone area, 100 in central Idaho, and 80 or so in northern Montana. Questions remain, however, including two fundamental ones: How many breeding females—the fundamental criterion for a sustainable population—are within those groups, and how many functioning packs are there? Moreover, the wolves are still surrounded by enemies. The states of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana remain hostile either to the reintroduction, state protection, or habitat protection of and for the wolves. Wolves who return to Alberta can be legally killed nine months of the year on public lands and can be widely hunted throughout British Columbia. According to Fish and Wildlife Service, only when the wolves reach a critical level of 10 breeding pairs for three years can wolves be “downlisted” (meaning that they would be removed from the status of “endangered” and classified as “threatened” thus subject to fewer Federal protections).

Since reintroduction, wolves have become the focal point for the three million tourists who visit Yellowstone every year. The wolf adorns the front cover of the Wildlife Watcher’s Guide and shares pride of place with the grizzly bear in the numerous pamphlets in the Park. The reintroduction of the wolf to the larger Yellowstone ecosystem (an area encompassing 11 million acres) has also meant that this corner of the U.S. is now the only intact ecosystem in the lower 48 states, meaning that all the species indigenous to the ecosystem remain within the system. Even those who protested wolf reintroduction because it would mean the death of more elk and bison have to acknowledge that while wolves kill an estimated 700 elk each year (mainly very young calves and old females), human predators kill many more, about 1,000 to 1,400 of the 20,000-strong herd each year. The predated species are in turn showing greater awareness and alertness as their old enemies move among them.

The wolf named 104 wasn’t the only wolf in the Lamar Valley that day in June. A lighter-colored gray wolf also entered the Valley, both in search of the 800-pound elk carcass that had been the food source for bears, ravens, eagles and a coyote for a few days. The watchers wondered what would happen when the two met. They circled one another briefly, and then the lighter-colored wolf adopted a submissive posture and they began to play. It turned out that the wolves once belonged to the same pack, and that more than likely the older dark-hued wolf had helped the lighter-colored wolf when the latter was a cub. They stayed with each other for a few moments—renewing their connection after a year—before they separated again, running off in different directions and into a still uncertain future.

To learn more about the Predator Project and its annual trips to Yellowstone National Park (scheduled in 2000 for around Memorial Day) contact Predator Project, P.O. Box 6733, Bozeman, MT 59771. Tel. 406-587-3389, Fax. 406-587-3178,

Wolves in Northern New England

A recent study sponsored by New York’s Wildlife Conservation Society indicates that wolves are not likely to return to the northeast from Canada by themselves, reports the New York Times (June 1, 1999). There are only two natural corridors between Quebec and Maine; otherwise the wolves would have to run across highways, railroads and swim the St. Lawrence River. Moreover, once in Maine, the wolves may mate with the abundant coyote population and create an impure gene pool. A report by Canadian scientists has found that the eastern Canadian and American wolf is a different species from the northern gray or Timber wolf. If the wolf, therefore, is to be reintroduced to northern New England, it will have to be from the population in Quebec.
The battlelines are similar to those in the West. Wolf reintroduction advocates argue that wolves will return the ecosystem to its previous equilibrium; the ranchers say the wolves aren’t welcome. There are abundant moose, deer, and beaver populations for the wolves to feed on; the ranchers say they will eat the cattle and sheep. However, wildlife biologists argue that wolves would have more a chance in northern New England, where there is more core habitat for wolves than in the Adirondacks, where there are also plans for reintroduction.—M.R.

Among the Survivalists

Tom Skeele, Executive Director of Predator Project, explains why the Bozeman-based environmental group is opposed to the current wolf reintroduction program.

There is an attitude in the northern Rockies that is called Shoot, Shovel and Shut Up. And if we don’t have any kind of legal ability to go back and say to people, “No you can’t do that,” and not have any kind of enforcement follow-up to that, then Shoot, Shovel and Shut Up is basically sanctioned. What we’re [Predator Project] saying is, “Let’s let [the wolves] come back home alone. Let’s be patient.”

There [are] three reasons why it would be a good thing to let them come back alone. One is that they’d come back with full protections [under the Endangered Species Act], which would be good for them. Secondly, is that they would come back, having come from Canada and Glacier [National Park], down through Montana and into Yellowstone. They would have learned how to stay out of trouble because they cross lots of roads. They would have crossed types of ranchlands. And the ones that would have got here would have learned how to stay out of trouble. It’s not a genetic knowledge but a learned behavior that would be very valuable over time.

The third reason, which I learned from a wolf biologist who is a state senator in the Glacier area, [goes like this]: “Think about this attitude that Montanans and the people in the northern Rockies have: tenacious individuals, self-reliant. So if a wolf is going to make it back on its own, run the gauntlet, and get here on its own, as opposed to being picked up by a helicopter and dragged here by the Federal government, then I think the locals are going to have more respect.” I think that’s true. You hear more screaming about the wolves in Yellowstone from the ranching community and the locals than you ever do in northwestern Montana—where they’re fully protected—because they weren’t reintroduced. I think it’s because people have learned how to live with them, and people heard that there were control measures if they needed them, and they also respected the wolves. Here [at Yellowstone], it was the Federal government shoving down this species. So, we felt, let’s just be patient.... [The reintroduction] is all fine and dandy and that’s what happened. It’s not a completed success, but it’s definitely successful.


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