Podcast Episodes

The Return of the Wolves

This episode of America’s National Parks was written and hosted by Jason Epperson with narration by Abigail Trabue and audio from the National Park Service.

In the battle for conservation and the protection and reinvigoration of endangered species, one animal serves as a symbol to remind us of what we’ve done as a human race, and how we have the responsibility to fix our mistakes. And it all played out in America’s first and most famous National Park.

On this episode of the America’s National Parks, Yellowstone National Park, and the 25th anniversary of the return of the Grey Wolf.

Listen below:


History of the Grey Wolf and Yellowstone:

In the 1800s, westward expansion brought settlers and their livestock into direct contact with native predator and prey species. Much of the wolves’ prey base was destroyed as agriculture flourished. With the prey removed, wolves began to hunt domestic stock, which resulted in humans eliminating wolves from most of their historical range.

Predator control, including poisoning, was practiced in the park in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and other predators such as bears, cougars, and coyotes were also killed to protect livestock and “more desirable” wildlife species, such as deer and elk.

The gray wolf was present in Yellowstone when the park was established in 1872. Today, it is difficult for many people to understand why early park managers would have participated in the extermination of wolves. After all, the Yellowstone National Park Act of 1872 stated that the Secretary of the Interior “shall provide against the wanton destruction of the fish and game found within said Park.” But this was an era before people, including many biologists, understood the concepts of ecosystem and the interconnectedness of species.

At the time, the wolves’ habit of killing prey species was considered “wanton destruction” of the animals, and between 1914 and 1926, at least 136 wolves were killed in the park. By the 1940s, wolf packs were rarely reported. By the mid-1900s, they had been almost entirely eliminated not only from Yellowstone but from the 48 states.

An intensive survey in the 1970s found no evidence of a wolf population in Yellowstone, although an occasional wolf probably wandered into the area. A wolf was filmed in Hayden Valley in August 1992, and a wolf was shot just outside the park’s southern boundary in September 1992. However, no verifiable evidence of a breeding pair of wolves existed.

Back in the 1960s, National Park Service wildlife management policy changed to allow populations to manage themselves. Many suggested at the time that for such regulation to succeed, the wolf had to be a part of the picture. National awareness of environmental issues and consequences had led to the passage of many laws designed to correct the mistakes of the past and help prevent similar mistakes in the future. One such law was the Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973. Requiring by law the restoration of endangered species that have been eliminated to an area, if possible. By 1978, all wolf subspecies were on the federal list for the lower 48 states except Minnesota.

Doug Smith is the Senior Wildlife Biologist with Yellowstone National Park.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service’s 1987 Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan proposed reintroduction of an “experimental population” of wolves into Yellowstone.
In 1991, Congress provided funds to prepare an environmental impact statement. In June 1994, after several years and a near-record number of public comments, the Secretary of the Interior approved the reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone and central Idaho.

Park staff completed site planning and archeological and sensitive-plant surveys for the release sites. Each site was approximately one acre enclosed with 9-gauge chain-link fence in 10 x 10-foot panels. The fences had a two-foot overhang and a four-foot skirt at the bottom to discourage climbing over or digging under the enclosure. Each pen had a small holding area attached to allow a wolf to be separated from the group if necessary for medical treatment. Plywood boxes provided shelter if the wolves wanted isolation from each other.

Canadian wildlife biologists captured wolves in Canada and relocated and released them in both Yellowstone and central Idaho. In mid-January 1995, 14 wolves were temporarily penned in Yellowstone; the first eight wolves on January 12, and the second six on January 19, 1995. Wolves from one social group were together in each acclimation pen. On January 23, 1996, 11 more animals were brought to Yellowstone for the second year of wolf restoration. Four days later they were joined by another six.

Each wolf was radio-collared, and while temporarily penned, they experienced minimal human contact. Twice a week, they were fed elk, deer, moose, or bison that had died in and around the park. They were guarded by law enforcement rangers who minimized how much the wolves saw humans. The pen sites and surrounding areas were closed to visitation and marked to prevent unauthorized entry. Biologists checked on the welfare of the wolves twice each week, using telemetry or visual observation while placing food in the pens.

Several lawsuits were filed to stop the restoration on a variety of grounds. These suits were consolidated, and in December 1997, the judge found that the wolf reintroduction program in Yellowstone and central Idaho violated the intent of the Endangered Species Act because there was a lack of geographic separation between fully protected wolves already existing in Montana and the reintroduction areas in which special rules for wolf management apply. The judge wrote that he had reached his decision “with utmost reluctance.” He ordered the removal (specifically not the killing) of reintroduced wolves and their offspring from the Yellowstone and central Idaho experimental population areas, then immediately stayed his order, pending appeal. The Justice Department appealed the case, and in January 2000 the decision was reversed.

Although five years of reintroductions were predicted, no transplants occurred after 1996 because of the early success of the reintroductions.

That was 25 years ago. So how is the experiment working?

Here’s ranger Beth Taylor to describe the cascade of changes the reintroduction of wolves has spawned:

The future of wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem will depend on how livestock depredation and hunting of wolves outside the park are handled. Wolf populations will also continue to be affected by the availability of elk, deer, and bison, which fluctuates in response to hunting quotas, winter severity, and disease. To what extent wolves may have contributed to the decline in the northern Yellowstone elk population since the mid- 1990s, or the possibly related resurgence of willow in some areas, is an ongoing topic of debate.

The reintroduction of wolves has provided biologists like Doug Smith with invaluable information about the lives and behaviors of wolves:

Humans have made disastrous environmental mistakes ever since they had the strength and numbers to attempt to tame the land. But humans also have the power to fix those mistakes.

Visiting Yellowstone National Park:

Yellowstone National Park is the best place in the world to see wolves in the wild. But where do you go? The Lamar Valley of course.

Ranger Beth Taylor again:

Wolves are not normally a danger to humans, unless humans habituate them by providing them with food. No wolf has attacked a human in Yellowstone, but a few attacks have occurred in other places.
Like coyotes, wolves can quickly learn to associate campgrounds, picnic areas, and roads with food. This can lead to aggressive behavior toward humans.

Never feed a wolf or any other wildlife. Do not leave food or garbage outside unattended. Make sure the door is shut on a garbage can or dumpster after you deposit a bag of trash. Treat wolves with the same respect you give any other wild animal.

To date, eight wolves in Yellowstone National Park have become habituated to humans. Biologists successfully conducted aversive conditioning on some of them to discourage being close to humans, but two had to be killed.


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