Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone 25 years ago, after intense debate and under serious scrutiny. Park rangers exterminated the last wolves in Yellowstone nearly a century ago, and their return has restored the park's ecosystem to a state not seen in a long time.
Chuck Preston was the founding curator of the Draper Natural History Museum in Cody for 20 years.
"Yellowstone has allowed wolves to reclaim lost territory and occupy an area where they've been absent except for maybe some wandering individuals for more than 70 years," he said.
The Draper Museum guides visitors through the many habitats of the Greater Yellowstone Region, from the highest mountain and alpine regions to the lowest plains and basins.
In the mountain forest region, you can hear birdsong and the howl of grey wolves. Ahead is a display featuring a large black-coated wolf, prey in its mouth and pups by its side.
You would never know that 25 years ago, not a single wolf called Yellowstone home.
"This is one of the last places in North America that can support wolves now where they were once eliminated by people," Preston said. "It's also an experiment to see if humans and wolves can coexist even in this large and largely undeveloped landscape of greater Yellowstone."
That question of coexistence goes back further than reintroduction 25 years ago. Much further, said Doug Smith of the Yellowstone Wolf Project.
"We looked up to them when we were hunter/gatherers, we admired them for their hunting skills," Smith said. "That all changed with the Agricultural Revolution roughly 12,000 years ago, because what they hunted became our livestock."
Wolves were viewed as the antithesis to civilization, Smith said. But the advent of steel traps, lead bullets, and chemical poisons allowed humans to vanquish their competition.
"Back in those days, there were good animals that we hunted, and bad animals - predators - that hunted our game animals," he said.
This mindset was even shared by early park rangers, who sought to protect Yellowstone more for its geology than its wildlife. Bears and cougars were also killed. Wolves were finally exterminated from the park in the 1920s.
For a few decades, park managers culled the elk herds no longer preyed upon by wolves and cougars. But a growing desire to preserve Yellowstone as a wild space led them to stop managing elk in the late 60s. In the absence of any predators, human or otherwise, the elk population soared.
"You take the predator out and they fill the vacant space to the top and over the top," Smith said. "That means there's not enough food to go around, not enough space to go around, and you start to have other things kick in, like reduced pregnancy, disease, high mortality, calf/fawn death because you're at the limit of what the environment can support."
Ecosystems are complex. An overabundance of elk has a cascade of effects on the environment … from the aspen and cottonwoods elk browse … to other animals, like beavers, that depend on that vegetation.
A controversial idea to repopulate Yellowstone with wolves from elsewhere was vigorously debated in the years that followed. But in 1995, wolf advocates won the day. 14 wolves from Canada were released in the park, with further releases during the next two years.
What followed was a multi-year feeding frenzy. Wolves were aided by revitalized grizzly and cougars populations.
"There were a ton of weak elk, sick elk, vulnerable elk," Smith said. "When these carnivores came back, the first decade or two were pretty good going."
As they lost their weakest members throughout that first decade, elk herds grew stronger. And the remaining elk in Yellowstone today are generally healthier and more cautious.
The park's wolf population has also stabilized, with around 100 individuals across 10 packs.
And perhaps no one knows those individuals better than Rick McIntyre. He arrived at Yellowstone in May 1995, not long after the first wolves.
McIntyre took a special interest in the Crystal Creek Pack - two parents and four pups from British Columbia. The three eldest pups were a good size and had nice black coats like their father - but the runt of the litter was different.
"That was Wolf No. 8, and he had a drab gray coat," McIntyre said. "So, he really stood out as kind of the oddball of the family, in a way kind of the Ugly Duckling, because his coat was very similar to the tone of a coyote."
One day, McIntyre spotted these brothers darting out of the woods, pursued by a grizzly.
Wolf 8 turned and stood his ground before the much larger predator.
"And I don't know what was going on in the brain of the bear but it just stopped, and it stared at this little wolf that was confronting him," McIntyre said.
He said Wolf 8 was still very young at this point, somewhat equivalent to a 13-year-old boy.
"The bear just turned around and left and that was the end of it," he said. "So, I was very impressed with that, and that was the beginning of me thinking there was going to be something special about Wolf No. 8."
McIntyre continued watching Wolf 8 for years, as the wolf adopted orphaned pups and stood down much larger alphas, even showing mercy to the ones he defeated.
But it's just one of many individual dramas he saw unfold in Yellowstone.
"It's sometimes said that in terms of social behavior, there's no two species on earth that are so similar as wolves and human beings," McIntyre said.
Given its success, Yellowstone's wolf reintroduction has served as a blueprint for reintroductions elsewhere. But the story's not over, Smith said. The wolves' first 15 years back in the park were a chaotic time …
"... The last ten have been astonishingly stable, almost weirdly so," Smith said. "And so we're actually waiting for the next thing to happen, because the elk population's stable, the wolf population's stable. And you just don't use the word stable in nature."
What that next thing could be is unknown. For now, wolves enjoy a prominent position as one of the park's most well-known predators. And the individual tales of family, adoption, bravery, and resilience continue to play out in the wilds of Yellowstone.
Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Jeff Victor, firstname.lastname@example.org.