20th Anniversary of the Reintroduction of Wolves in Yellowstone
One of Yellowstone’s most important predators, who roamed its landscape and defined its ecosystem for thousands of years, completely disappeared in the early part of the 20th Century. By the 1920s, the last wolf pack in Yellowstone was killed, in an effort by the U.S. government to tame the wilderness. This action had a profound effect on Yellowstone. Elk and coyote populations boomed. Beavers became increasingly rare, and so did willow and aspen trees. The park was missing a keystone species and it affected the balance of the entire ecosystem.
But the tide began to turn with the help of the watershed Endangered Species Act, one of a few dozen United States environmental laws passed in the 1970s. With its passing, the stage was set for the return of the wolf to Yellowstone when the gray wolf was listed as endangered and recovery mandated in 1974. Immediately, the National Park Service began planning a wolf homecoming in Yellowstone—their native territory and historic home.
It took 21 years, but in January 1995, all the pieces were in place. Fourteen gray wolves were captured in Canada and relocated to Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley. In 1996, 17 more Canadian wolves were brought into the park, followed by 10 wolves from northwestern Montana in 1997.
The wolf population grew quickly, as pack territories and breeding pairs were established. As of January 2016, 98 wolves in 10 packs thrive in Yellowstone, but they are not without controversy. Pro- and anti-wolf camps continue to proliferate.
“I hoped that the controversy would have died down by now, but it hasn’t,” said Yellowstone Wolf Project Leader Doug Smith. “It remains an emotional topic, but the world hasn’t come to an end. Livestock depredation is quite rare, and elk hunting success around the park is on par with the rest of the states of Montana and Wyoming. Yet there are still lawsuits.”
A Program Built on Private Support
“Thanks to the donors, Yellowstone has the most recognizable wolf conservation program in the world.” -Doug Smith
While the federal government funded the original restoration and monitoring of wolves from 1995-1996, this funding dried up. The fledgling Yellowstone Park Foundation (now Yellowstone Forever), established in 1996, stepped in to raise private contributions to continue wolf research and monitoring in the park.
“If it wasn’t for the Yellowstone Park Foundation, the whole thing could have gone down the tubes in those early years,” said Smith. “Thanks to the donors, Yellowstone has the most recognizable wolf conservation program in the world and is conducting cutting-edge research.”
Some of the Yellowstone Forever-funded research has been on wolf behavior and wolf pack genetics, and the insights are intriguing. Other research has focused on the impact of the wolf on the larger ecosystem. What happens when you return a top-level predator, which has been absent for nearly 70 years, to a wilderness area?
While the biologists and managers who originally planned wolf reintroduction more than two decades ago predicted effects on other species, nothing could have prepared them for the profound impacts wolves have had on the Yellowstone landscape. There have been “trickle down” effects in the entire food chain, from other predators to birds and trees.
Hope for the Future
When asked to look ahead to the next 20 years, Smith is cautiously hopeful.
“I hope that wolves are still part of the northern Rocky Mountain landscape and that they endure, even in this human-dominated environment,” said Smith. “The greater Yellowstone area is home to three top-level predators: wolves, grizzly bears, and cougars. You won’t find these three species together, at this density, anywhere else in the country.”
“Hopefully in the next 20 years there will be less polarization and wolves will come to be treated like any other wildlife,” Smith continued. “Yellowstone provides good news about wolves worldwide, and I hope more people will appreciate how special and important that is.”