Yellowstone Celebrates 20 Years With Wolves

Feb 6, 2015

Dr. Doug Smith, Yellowstone Wolf Biologist, poses with a tranquilized wolf.
Credit Yellowstone National Park

Wolves were brought back to Yellowstone 20 years ago this week. They had been missing from the Park’s landscape for almost 70 years. Their reintroduction caught the world’s attention. But wolves are still controversial and still federally protected in Wyoming.

Humans standing alongside the road howled as Canadian wolves were carried into Yellowstone through the Roosevelt arch in January 1995. Excited tourists came from around the world to watch in them Lamar Valley the next spring. They followed the animals through spotting scopes.

One tourist tracked a wolf through his scope. “It’s still moving. Gone again behind the ridge.”

Another tourist wore a sweatshirt that had a picture of a wolf on it, and the words, 'Coming Home Yellowstone, 95.’

She said, “[It's] just be the thrill of a lifetime for me to see a wolf.”

Park biologist Dr. Doug Smith is one of dozens of scientists who study wolves in and outside of Yellowstone. He says the other countries were watching when the U.S. took the bold step of replacing a large predator that had been absent since 1926.

Smith explains why the park supported the reintroduction of wolves. “It was fueled by the Endangered Species Act, but park policy and our mission is to restore natural systems. And, how can you do that without America’s top predator?”

But outside the park, people were protesting even before the reintroduction. Retired biologist Chuck Neal was at a meeting in Cody, when the President addressed locals.

Neal recalls the moment. “Bush Senior said it would never happen on his watch.”

He says the local reaction at that and other meetings was one of fear, hysteria, and loathing.

"You had ranchers that showed up that said the wolf was a killing machine, that he’d come out of the Park if you brought him to Yellowstone Park, killing and eating as he came, and he would not stop until he reached the Mexican border,” says Neal.

Wolves did kill livestock, and elk. But last year Wyoming game and fish officials said elk herd numbers and hunter success was high statewide. While Idaho and Montana have taken over wolf management, the controversy continues in Wyoming, The wolves were delisted here, twice. But a lawsuit put them under federal protection again last year.

Park County Commissioner Joe Tilden says the state and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service appealed, but that may take a long time, even if they win the appeal.

The elk herds have been dispersed. There's no question about that. And a lot of the elk that used to reside in Yellowstone Park, they're not there anymore. And the northern elk herd before the wolf came in, they were approaching 20,000 animals. Today it's less than 4,000.

“Say [the judge's] decision is overturned in the appeals court, then the environmental community actually as the option at that time to appeal it all the way to the Supreme Court,” says Tilden.

Wyoming’s congressional delegation is looking at federal legislation to de-list the wolves and to end the court battles. And Tilden says the wolves have made an impact.

“The elk herds have been dispersed. There’s no question about that. And a lot of the elk that used to reside in Yellowstone Park, they’re not there anymore. And the northern elk herd before the wolf came in, they were approaching 20,000 animals. Today it’s less than 4,000.”

And attitudes may be changing.

The Draper Museum of Natural History in Cody has a remarkable interactive exhibit on wolves. It consists of small pieces of paper, where people write what they think about the predators.

The museum’s founding curator, Dr. Charles Preston, has counted more than 20,000 responses to date. “During the summer our visitors are from all over the world. The tally is about 80 percent for wolves in the ecosystem and 20 percent against,” he says.

During the winter, when mostly locals visit the museum, the count is different.

“Early on it was reversed. It was twenty percent for wolves and eighty percent against. In the last couple of years it’s been 60 for wolves being here and 40 percent against,” says Preston.

And tourists keep watching for wolves in Yellowstone. Doug Smith says as many as 300,000 visitors see them each year.

“A study done by the University of Montana in the late 2000’s suggested that wolves generate about 35 million dollars of economic activity in gateway communities per year.”

Some say most of that money goes to Montana, although more and more wolves are being seen in Hayden Valley. And more wolf watchers may be coming through Cody, and the park’s East Entrance to see them.

There are about 100 wolves in Yellowstone now. Tilden says state of Wyoming has about 200 wolves outside the park.